Virginia Tech will lead the effort to enlist high school students across the nation to help scientists unravel the secrets that plant scientists use as a model for genetic research.

The National Institutes of Health is providing $1.3 million during the next five years as Virginia Tech mobilizes high school students to become researchers through the Partnership for Research and Education in Plants, or PREP. The program will be the critical bridge linking the needs of university-based scientists and the until-now latent potential of high school science labs to provide answers concerning the roles played by the 25,500 genes of the "white mouse" of the plant world, Arabidopsis thaliana.

"The students will be doing a first-pass analysis," said Erin Dolan, outreach director for Virginia Tech's Fralin Biotechnology Center and the principal investigator for the project. "Their experiments will be repeated to confirm the results, but there is so much territory to cover that they will help scientists plot the direction of inquiry into the genome."

Arabidopsis has the distinction of being the first plant whose entire genome has been mapped. That map reveals the sequence and location of particular genes, but not necessarily what those genes do. Students involved in the PREP program will do the straightforward, though time-consuming, lab work to help generate that information, Dolan said.

What makes the partnership not only exciting but also very important is that scientists use Arabidopsis as a model to make predictions about other plants. Therefore, understanding the genetic instructions provided by specific genes in Arabidopsis can help scientists working on such projects as producing disease-resistant crops, plant-base pharmaceuticals, and other research involving a variety of plants.

"We think that students will become more involved in science when they see this project's connection to real-life research and the relevance of what they are doing in their school laboratory," Dolan said. "Even if this doesn't make some students want to become scientists, it will provide them with an understanding of genomics and genetics. These are subjects every citizen has to make decisions about right now, through their choices as consumers and voters."

PREP began in Virginia high schools last year, and is expanding this year to involve as many as 2,000 high school students. Dolan said efforts during the first year will focus on working out the procedures for experimental design and developing and testing related educational materials for the high schools.

Also in this initial period, the PREP Web site will be expanded to provide information to students and scientists interested in the project, including laboratory protocols and discussion boards. It will also provide a mechanism for students to upload their results to a database that will be available to other students and scientists worldwide.

In PREP, scientists will provide wild-type and "knock-out" mutant seeds as well experimental know-how to the students. The "knock-out" seeds will have specific genes removed or inactivated. The students will then develop experiments that they hope will show the difference between the wild-type and mutant plants. Those differences should provide important clues concerning the function of the genes that were knocked out.

One of the initial partners in the project is The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR), a Web-based database operated at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University. Sue Rhee, TAIR Director and a faculty member at Stanford, is co-principal investigator for the project.

"We have been doing this in Virginia for about two years with the Fralin Center providing the funding," Dolan said. "This NIH grant will allow us to scale up the program and provide mini-grants to our partner institutions to begin the program in their states."

Beginning in 2005 PREP will establish regional centers at Virginia Tech, Cornell University, the University of California at Davis, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Arizona. These regional centers will work with high schools in their states and will develop partnerships with universities or other institutions in nearby states that will work with their respective high schools. By the end of the grant period in 2008, Dolan said, 20 states are expected to involve as many as 40,000 high school students in the project each year.

Can high school students really come up with experiments that will advance our understanding of the functions of genes?

"I don't think there's any doubt that good information will come out of this," Dolan said. "It's sort of a fishing expedition, but when you have this many people fishing you're likely to catch a fish. At the same time, students will be learning the basic principles of scientific inquiry and the nature of science, making the effort a true partnership between high schools and research institutions. Both partners contribute and both partners benefit."