With the arrival of gene-shifting technologies two decades ago, agricultural scientists enthusiastically forecasted another green revolution-genetically engineered plants that would be disease-resistant, healthier to eat, require less pesticides and produce larger yields.
Today, many of these predictions are being realized. More nutritious corn and soybeans with higher oil content have been developed. Colored cotton that doesn't have to be dyed is now grown. And, some plants have been genetically altered to tolerate specific herbicides or to attack specific insect pests without harming other beneficial bugs and animals.
Consumers now benefit from fruits with a longer shelf life, potatoes that resist bruising and tomatoes that sustain less damage in freezing temperatures.
And, the environment also stands to gain from new genetically engineered products. Scientists in Georgia recently announced that they have designed a gene that, when inserted in test plants, will remove heavy metal pollutants from the soil.
The University of Delaware's College of Agricultural Sciences is entering this brave new world of agriculture by creating what is thought to be the largest gene sequencing facility in the U.S. dedicated to agriculturally important plants, animals and microorganisms. In cooperation with industry partners, including the DuPont Co., Intervet and Mallinckrodt Veterinary, and other Delaware academic institutions, the University of Delaware Center for Agricultural Biotechnology will focus on gene discovery in crop plants, their pathogens and on poultry viruses.
The center was one of three advanced technology centers approved by the General Assembly and announced by Gov. Thomas Carper Aug. 5.
"The opportunity for major breakthroughs in agricultural production will come from biotechnology," says John Nye, dean of the college. "By identifying the expressed [active] genes in food crops, we can produce higher yields and reduce our dependency on chemicals for pest control."
Biotechnology-in which scientists transfer characteristics from one organism to another unrelated organism-involves the identification of desirable genes found in the chromosomes of a plant or animal. Genes are composed of a material known as DNA, and the once time-consuming process of determining the order of DNA subunits in specific genes has now been speeded up by automatic sequencers.
"Although traditional genetics works, cross breeding for a better variety was incredibly time-consuming," says Nye. "Plus, we didn't really understand the genome. Now, we can look at a specific gene for a desired characteristic, such as resistance to a particular disease or the ability to withstand high soil salinity. We can identify exactly the gene we are interested in, extract it, clone it and insert it into another plant."
Nonetheless, deciphering the genetic makeup of important crop plants remains a formidable task. Along with its first industrial partner, the DuPont Co.'s Agricultural Products Division, the center will focus initially on analyzing the expressed genes of corn and soybeans and creating computer databases of specific cloned sequences. Over the next four years, the partners expect to sequence more than 1 million expressed genes in plants and poultry viruses.
"DuPont has assembled a group of highly qualified molecular biologists, DNA sequencing specialists and computer programmers along with 24 state-of-the art sequencers for an advanced technology center at Delaware Technology Park in Newark," says Nye. "We have an opportunity to develop a synergistic relationship with these world-class molecular biologists and, in doing so, strengthen molecular biology across the campus."
A major benefit of the center to the University is intellectual stimulation, Nye says, and the new center will offer student training and regular seminars. Student interns will have the opportunity to work as lab technicians, and there will be an opportunity for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.
Closer ties with Delaware State University and Delaware Technical and Community College and for student workers there also are part of the center.
The College of Agricultural Sciences, which already has a world-class program in developing vaccines for poultry diseases, now has a new biotechnology laboratory. Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the poultry industry, the state and the University, this 16,000 square-foot lab is a state-of-the-art facility to study poultry diseases at the highest level of bio-containment.
Nye says that Delmarva poultry industries and vaccine manufacturers also will benefit from the biotechnology research center, as the molecular biology technologies also are important tools in understanding poultry viruses.
The developed database of genetic information will be a highly valued intellectual property attractive to agricultural biotechnology industries, Nye says. He envisions future business ventures growing out of such information, with the University and industry partners sharing the value of the genetic information.
The University has experience dealing with such intellectual property issues, he says, through the Delaware Research Partnership Program. Over the past five years, faculty in the UD College of Agricultural Sciences alone have received almost $2.5 million through that program and their projects have supported agricultural industries in Delaware. "The center will provide even greater incentives to attract new industries and support existing ones," Nye says.
University of Delaware Office of Public Relations
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996