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Bioinformatics and crop information systems
in rice research
Richard Bruskiewich, Thomas Metz, and Graham McLaren

he triple revolution in biotechnology, computing science, and communication
technology has stimulated informatics applications in rice research. This review
specifically covers the impact of biology-focused informatics (“bioinformatics”)
in rice research on the discovery of genotype-phenotype relationships for priority
traits, using diverse data sources.
Bioinformatics is a scientific discipline lying at the intersection of biology, mathematics,
computing science, and information technology. Bioinformatics can be discussed within
the following frameworks:
• Applications: What kind of research questions can be answered using bioinformatics?
• Databases: What data sources and applicable semantic standards (ontology1) are
pertinent to answering these research questions?
• Protocols, algorithms, and tools: What analysis protocols, computing algorithms, and
software tools can be applied to answer these research questions?

Ontology refers to the formal definition of a dictionary of concepts and their interrelationships. There are many international bioinformatics efforts in
this area, such as Gene Ontology ( and Plant Ontology (, pertinent to crop research.

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• Infrastructure: What hardware, software, and sociated with this tapestry of germplasm function
networking systems are required to support the are summarized in Figure 1.
This review will focus primarily on germplasm- Germplasm
based crop research, although many of the same Proper management of germplasm information is
tools can be applied to current problems in soil essential for the elucidation of genotype-expression-
microbiology, entomology, and other areas of crop phenotype associations. Management goals include
research. Also, some of the design principles of systematic tracking of germplasm origin (passport
bioinformatics information systems will be useful and genealogy information), recording of alternate
for other research fields, such as geographic and germplasm names, accurate linkage of experimental
agronomic information systems. results to applicable genotypes, and proper material
management of germplasm inventories.
Bioinformatics applications in crop research An important aspect of any good germplasm
The fundamental scientific question underlying information system is the separation of the manage-
germplasm research is, What is the causal relation- ment of nomenclature from identification. Users
ship between genotype and phenotype? DNA is must be free to name germplasm as they like, and
transcribed into RNA, which is either bioactive the system must make sure the names are bonded
itself (as noncoding RNA gene products) or is to the right germplasm. A key to effective manage-
translated into peptides that form part of protein ment of such variable germplasm information is
gene products. Ultimately, these products act as the assignment of a unique germplasm identifier
structural elements, genetic regulatory control fac- (GID) to each distinct germplasm sample—seed
tors, or modulators of the biochemical fluxes within package or clone—that needs to be tracked (“bar
metabolic and physiological pathways, at the sub- coded”). The acid test is to ask whether or not mix-
cellular, tissue, organ, and whole organism level. ing two germplasm samples together will result in
This sum total of molecular expression integrates to an unacceptable loss of biological or management
give the overall structural and behavioral features information. If the answer to this question is “yes,”
of the plant—its “phenotype.” The unfolding of this then each sample should be assigned a distinct
story also has an essential environmental context, in- GID. The GID is the essential reference point for
cluding biotic (ecosystem) and abiotic (geophysical) managing all meta-data about the germplasm, for
factors modulating expression in a variety of ways accurately attributing all experimental observa-
via diverse sensory and regulatory mechanisms in tions made about that sample, and for cross-linking
the plant. Various classes of experimental data as- related germplasm samples with one another, for

Genetic analysis
• Inventory
• Identification (passport)
• Genealogy

has has
Genotype Germplasm Phenotype

• Genetic maps determines determines • Anatomical
• Physical maps • Developmental
• DNA sequence Molecular • Field performance
• Functional annotation expression • Stress response
• Molecular variation
(natural or induced) • Transcriptome
• Proteome
affects • Metabolome
• Physiology
• Location (GIS)
• Climate
• Daylength
• Ecosystem
• Agronomy
• Stress Environment

Fig. 1. Biological and information relationships in germplasm research.

6 June 2006
example, the parents (sources) and progeny of the Answering such questions will often lead to
given sample, including membership of the sample deeper exploration of germplasm, such as evo-
in global “management neighborhoods.2” lutionary studies, practical management of plant
Once assigned, a GID is never destroyed, but crosses, and genetic resource management.
rather persists in the crop database long after the as- Molecular variation that is biologically signifi-
sociated sample has become unavailable (after being cant is that postulated to be causally correlated with
fully consumed, nonviable, or otherwise lost). In this differences in structure (i.e., genome content or ar-
manner, historical information about germplasm rangement), biochemical function (resulting from
may be efficiently integrated with information about critical functional changes in RNA bases or amino
extant descendants of that germplasm. Although acid residues), or regulation of gene products (by
a given GID is generally a database primary key affecting promoter or enhancer sequences).
defined locally to a given database, it should be Whatever the nature of genotype measure-
convertible into a globally unique identifier within ments, the primary task of bioinformatics is to
a community of germplasm databases. There are completely capture and accurately codify the raw
various protocols for achieving this, for example, and derived genotype data. Bioinformatics also
the life science identifier (LSID) protocol.3 This applies statistical algorithms to raw genotype mea-
requirement is not unique to GID usage. In fact, surements to make useful inferences such as locus
most biological data to be shared by a distributed assignments on genetic and physical maps, assess-
community should be assigned global identification ments of germplasm relatedness and biodiversity,
in this manner. or assays of the impact of molecular variation on
the biological system. Bioinformatics methodol-
Genotypes ogy assists in all stages of genotyping experiments
Genotypes can be characterized at various levels of and in the interpretation of results: from raw data
abstraction and resolution. In all instances, what is capture (e.g., gel image processing), documentation,
being measured and tracked across meiotic events, and storage to semiautomated analysis of raw data
either directly or indirectly, is sequence variation into inferences (i.e., germplasm fingerprinting and
(“alleles”) in the DNA of organisms. Experimental mapping, alignments of DNA variation to RNA and
systems conceived to make those measurements are protein structures to elucidate functional variance,
designated “markers.” Markers can be any scientific etc.) through visualization and publication of the
protocol used to observe a biological process caus- information.
ally coupled to the molecular variation of interest. A growing foundation for modern genotyping
This broad definition includes laboratory measure- is, of course, the sequence-level structural charac-
ments of DNA (e.g., polymerase chain reactions or terization of plant genomic DNA, an activity within
DNA-DNA hybridization events) and simple obser- which bioinformatics has played an enormous tech-
vations of visible phenotypes (e.g., classical visible nical role. The publication of the Arabidopsis thaliana
genetic markers such as morphological variants). genome in 2000 (AGI 2000) gave plant biologists a
The molecular variation measured by genotyping major information resource for indexing current
can be neutral or biologically significant. and future understanding of plant genotypes. Since
Neutral molecular variation generally involves that time, a complete survey of the rice genome
markers that simply exhibit DNA structural poly- sequence has also become available (IRGSP 2005).
morphism that is usefully applied to answer the Several other crop genome-sequencing projects are
following basic questions: rapidly constructing a rich and diverse repository
• To what extent are germplasm samples similar of public information about plant DNA sequence
to or different from one another (i.e., “finger- structure across many species, which will enable
printing” experiments)? significant and fruitful future studies in compara-
• What is the chromosome location of a marker tive genomics.
(i.e., “mapping” experiments)?

A “management neighborhood” of germplasm is defined as the entire population of germplasm that essentially shares and is intended to conserve the distinct genetic composi-
tion of a specified founding germplasm sample. This concept finds utility in institutional decisions to conserve, describe, and globally share specified germplasm sets like mapping
populations (e.g., Azucena/IR64), genomics stocks (e.g., mutants), parental breeding releases (e.g., cultivar releases like IR64), and accessions held in genetic resource collections.

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Phenotypes processes, for example, as contributors to specified
Bioinformatics management of phenotype data agronomic traits of interest. The overall strategy is
primarily focuses on cataloging simple phenotypes. that of intersecting evidence from positional, func-
Bioinformatics researchers, such as in the Open Bio- tional, expression, selection, and crop modeling
medical Ontologies initiative (http://obo.source- information sources (Fig. 2)., are cataloging controlled vocabulary and
ontology to formalize phenotype descriptions by Databases
cross-linking concepts of “observable,” “attribute,” Computerized databases are a relatively recent
and “value.” A simple application of this paradigm innovation in biology, expanding dramatically in
is the following phenotype specification: leaf (ob- scope, usage, and online accessibility during the
servable) color (attribute) is red (value). Observables 1990s. At the cornerstone of modern biological
for plants can be codified using plant anatomy and research are the international public sequence data-
developmental process terms being defined by the bases, of which there are three major ones: Genbank
Plant Ontology Consortium (POC) (www.planton- at the National Center for Biotechnology Informa-; POC 2002). IRRI scientists are collabo- tion (NCBI;, the European
rating with POC and others to systematically index Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) sequence
descriptions for phenotypes of interest relating to database hosted at the European Bioinformatics
agronomic traits such as yield, biotic and abiotic Institute (EBI;, and the DNA Data
stress tolerance, and improved grain quality. Bank of Japan (DDBJ; In fact,
basic sequence data submitted to any of these three
Molecular expression databases are automatically mirrored to the other
Moving beyond the map characterization of ge- two databases on a routine basis, so visiting any one
nomic DNA highlighted above, the task of func- of the databases usually suffices for basic data. Each
tional genomics (and other “-omics” fields such as site, however, has specialized information resources
proteomics and metabolomics) is to characterize the worth exploring independently.
dynamic picture of molecular expression within the Although Web user interfaces for these sequence
living organism at the level of RNA, protein, and databases are well developed, deployment of local
metabolites. The rice genome contains thousands of copies of major public and semipublic databases
predicted genes. The primary motivation of func- pertinent to crop research permits higher efficiency
tional genomics research is to narrow down the list for repetitive high-throughput searches that result
of candidate genes implicated in specified biological from the processing of large experimental data sets.

Fig. 2. Intersecting evidence for candidate genes.

8 June 2006
The “BioMirror” project ( The International Crop (Rice) Information System
provides valuable database mirroring facilities in The International Crop Information System (ICIS;
this regard. is an “open-source” and
Beyond sequence data, the range of pertinent “open-licensed” generic crop information system5
functional genomics experiments and associated under development since the early 1990s by the
data is too extensive to fully enumerate here, but CGIAR, national agricultural research and ex-
several public sources of such crop-related bioinfor- tension systems, agricultural research institutes,
matics data are listed in the table. The reader is also and private-sector partners (McLaren et al 2005,
encouraged to consult various books and journal Bruskiewich et al 2003, Fox and Skovmand 1996).
reviews providing surveys of available resources.4 Using the GID protocol previously discussed, ICIS
Some excellent online indices of data sources (and is designed to fully document germplasm genealo-
related software tools) exist, for example, the Expasy gies6 with associated meta-data such as passport
Life Sciences Directory ( data and to accurately cross-link germplasm entries
html). with associated experimental observations7 from

Table 1. Partial inventory of online public rice/crop/plant bioinformatics databases.
Database Description/organism URL

Rice Genome Project/IRGSP International Rice Genome Sequencing Project http://rgp.dna/
RAP DB “Rice Annotation Project” database
TIGR Rice TIGR rice genome database
BGI Rice Information System (BGI) Indica (93-11) rice genome data
Oryzabase NIG Oryza genetics database
Gramene Comparative grasses, anchored on rice
MOsDB MIPS Oryza sativa database
IRIS International Rice Information System
IRFGC International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium
Web site
OryzaSNP IRFGC hosted rice single nucleotide polymorphism
(SNP) survey
OMAP Comparative genome physical maps of Oryza wild
MPSS Massive parallel signature sequencing gene expression
RED (NIAS) rice expression database
Rice Array Db NSF-funded oligo rice gene expression array
Yale Plant Genomics Gene expression from tiling path arrays and rice tissues
Rice Proteome Database NIAS rice proteome database
Tos17 rice mutants NIAS rice TOS 17 insertion mutants
T-DNA Rice Insertion lines (Gyn An) Korean T-DNA rice insertion mutants
OryGenesDb (CIRAD) Reverse genetics for rice
KOME database Knowledge-Based Oryza Molecular Biological Encyclo-
RIKEN Arabidopsis and rice functional genomics data
Rice Blast Magnaporthe grisea genomics
Genevestigator (Gruissem) Gene networks in Arabidopsis and rice
MaizeGDB Maize
PlexDB Plant expression data
GRIN Plant genetic resources
TAIR The Arabidopsis Information Resource
NASC Arabidopsis thaliana
MATDB Arabidopsis thaliana
PLACE db Plant cis-acting regulatory DNA elements database
PlantCare Plant cis-acting regulatory DNA elements database
NCBI Plant Plant genomes central at NCBI
EXPASY Index to other plant-specific databases

Nucleic Acids Research has a “database edition” at the start of each calendar year with an online index ( See also Plant Physiology, May 2005, Vol.
138, wh ich recently published an extensive set of review papers on available plant databases.
“Open source” refers to the accessibility of the computer source code of the system. “Open license” essentially means that anyone can freely use and modify the code for their
use. “Generic” means that it is adaptable to any other crop (not just rice).
The ICIS Genealogy Management System (GMS) efficiently tracks the extended network of GID relationships and the meta-data associated with each GID.
The ICIS Data Management System (DMS) documents studies of germplasm using a biometric “study” model mildly reminiscent of a computer spreadsheet. In fact, some DMS
input and display tools are based on Excel.

IRRN 31.1 9
evaluations undertaken in the field, greenhouse, tools can be used to apply such protocols and algo-
or laboratory. rithms to crop research problems. A few representa-
ICIS meets the need for global identification of tive tools will be mentioned here.
GID and other data objects (e.g., field studies) by The European Molecular Biology Open Soft-
maintaining globally unique information about the ware Suite (EMBOSS; is an open-
local database installation and user who created the source sequence-analysis package that provides
entry, as the authority for the information assigned more than 200 sequence analysis utilities, including
to a given ICIS object identifier. This entry may wrappers for most publicly available algorithms
eventually be published in a central ICIS repository such as pairwise and multiple sequence alignments,
and receive a second new “public” identifier cross- primer design, and sequence feature recognition
linked to the original identifier. Such ICIS object algorithms. EMBOSS also reads and writes a wide
identifiers (e.g., GIDs) like LSIDs are not names, variety of sequence and annotation formats. The
and, although they do contain some information Open-Bio community ( is host
on domain and authority, no one will generally use to a series of computer language-specific bioinfor-
them as names for germplasm. matics tool kits useful for bioinformatics data trans-
In addition to specifying a common database formation scripts and Web site development. The
schema, the ICIS community has collaboratively Generic Model Organism Database project (GMOD;
developed many freely available8 specialized soft- is a clearinghouse of many freely
ware analysis tools and interfaces for the system for available, open-source software tools for manag-
efficiently documenting, analyzing, and retrieving ing and manipulating biological information in
information about germplasm samples and studies. databases. Another good source of freely available,
These include practical tools (Fig. 3) to manage lists open-source tools is the TIGR software site (www.
of germplasm for plant crosses, evaluative nurseries,, which has various software
and collections.9 systems useful in particular experimental contexts.
The public rice implementation of ICIS is IRRI’s For proteomics tools, the Expasy Web site at the
flagship germplasm database, the International Rice Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (
Information System (IRIS; IRIS is a valuable resource. For metabolomics tools, the
currently contains about two million germplasm Systems Biology Markup Language site (SBML;
(GID) entries with millions of associated data points is a good starting point.
in hundreds of experimental studies, including A principal limitation of many online databases
many phenotypic observations and a growing is their dependence on regular Web server interfaces
number of genotypic measurements. IRIS also pub- for data publication, interfaces solely searchable
lishes phenotype information for the Institute’s IR64 using standard Web browsers. Technologies such
rice mutant collection (Wu et al 2005). This latter as semantic Web languages and Web services pro-
information is searchable using a query interface tocols are being explored as a means of creating
permitting the specification of mutant phenotypes frameworks for “computer program-friendly Web
using the “observable,” “attribute,” and “value” surfing,” such that more powerful client software
model previously discussed. IRRI scientists have than Web browsers can be designed, implemented,
generated a number of high-throughput data sets, and deployed on the biologist’s desktop. One such
including genetic maps; transcript, protein, and me- protocol is BioCASE ( Another
tabolomic expression experiments; and genotypic notable protocol is the BioMOBY project (www.
measurements on a growing set of germplasm.; Wilkinson et al 2005) that is striving
Many of these data sets are now published in IRIS to apply biological semantics in a formal manner to
or in collaborating databases such as Gramene. integrate bioinformatics data sources and computa-
tional services into complex workflows that can be
Protocols and tools managed and visualized by sophisticated clients,
Bioinformatics analysis requires a very broad range such as the Taverna workflow tool (http://taverna.
of protocols and algorithms. Many freely available

Information and links to ICIS tools are available off the ICIS Web site at
Including specialized tools for genetic resource collection management.

10 June 2006
Fig. 3. Sample screen images of some ICIS software tools.

IRRN 31.1 11
Future challenges Society for Computational Biology (www.iscb.
IRRI finds itself involved in various international org) serves as a global community of practice in
research consortia and alliances, in particular, the the field; the Asia Pacific Bioinformatics Network
International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium ( is a good regional source of
(IRFGC;, the Generation bioinformatics information in Asia.
Challenge Programme (GCP; www.generationcp.
org) (Fig. 4), and a formal alliance with CIMMYT.10 References
Such partnerships require much greater integra- AGI (The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative). 2000. Analysis of
the genome sequence of the flowering plant Arabidopsis
tion across data resources and research outputs,
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and technologies, developed as a team effort across New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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subprogram for crop information platform and net- LR, Reyes T, Sallan MAB, Ulat VJM, Wang X, McNally
KL, Sackville Hamilton R, McLaren CR. 2003. Linking
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Fig. 4. Research agenda of the Generation Challenge Programme. Mol. Biol. 59:85-97.

CIMMYT is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center located in Mexico. In January 2006, the biometrics, crop information, and bioinformatics teams across both
institutes were merged into a single “Crop Research Informatics Laboratory” (CRIL) spanning crop information management and comparative biology research in rice, maize, and

12 June 2006