Technological advances in molecular biology have contributed substantially to our understanding of plant genetic diversity. Early studies of allozyme variation employing protein electrophoresis revealed that plant populations have high levels of genetic diversity, most of the variation at polymorphic loci is found within populations, and geographic range and breeding system explain the largest proportion of variation in genetic diversity. With the discovery of restriction endonucleases, the first DNA-based markers allowed the detection of variation in DNA sequences in plant population studies. More recently, techniques that utilize the polymerase chain reaction have allowed a more representative assessment of genetic variation in plants by screening multiple loci distributed throughout the genome. The analyses reveal sufficient polymorphism for the examination of fine-scale genetic differences among individuals. Information on plant genetic diversity is also emerging from studies of plant genome structure. Comparative genetic mapping studies of members of the Brassicaceae, Poaceae, and Solanaceae show that gene content is highly conserved between closely related species, although gene order on a chromosomal segment may differ between species. Comparative sequencing studies reveal higher degrees of diversity at the microstructural (less than 1 million base pairs) level than predicted at the genetic map level and suggest that genes are densely packed in gene-rich regions, rather than randomly distributed along chromosomes in species with large genomes. Sequencing of the entire genomes of rice and Arabidopsis thaliana will help identify genes controlling agronomically important traits, improve our understanding of genetic variation for fitness-related traits in wild plant populations including weed species, resolve evolutionary relationships among plant taxa, and potentially revolutionize current ideas on plant diversity and evolution.
Nomenclature: Mouse-ear cress, Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) Heynh.; rice Oryza sativa L.