Plant research facility donated to UW

Jan Shepel

Madison - A large fully equipped plant research facility has been donated to the University of Wisconsin and plant breeders are over the moon about the potential discoveries and developments they are sure will come out of those greenhouses and laboratories.
            The Middleton facility, which has grown over the years, was built in 1982 as the Cetus Corporation, a brainchild of Winston Brill and other UW scientists. A few years later it was purchased by W.R. Grace and Company and became Agracetus. Eventually the plant development lab was purchased by Monsanto where development of the Roundup Ready® soybean and other biotechnology achievements took place.
            When Monsanto decided a couple of years ago that it would close the Middleton facility and several other plant development sites around the country and consolidate research at a new location near its headquarters in St. Louis, company officials approached the UW about donating the site to the university.
            That donation became final in December. This week Monsanto and UW officials invited the media in for a tour of the labyrinth of greenhouses and laboratories and dedication of what will now be called the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center.
            “This gift will enable us to create a plant breeding biotechnology facility unparalleled in the public sector,” said Kate VandenBosch, Dean of the UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
            The facility is about 100,000 square feet and was donated with a great deal of laboratory equipment – valued in total at about $10 million. The complex includes 28,000 square feet of greenhouse space in 20 greenhouses, 15,000 square feet of controlled environments, including shade houses and light rooms where certain kinds of controlled experiments can take place and 50,000 square feet of high quality lab space.
            VandenBosch anticipates that researchers from many disciplines – agronomy, plant breeding, botany, biochemistry and others – will use the facility to develop and improve commercially important plant stocks. Technically the center was donated to the University Research Park, a UW-Madison affiliate, which will manage the center under a lease to the university.
            The donation is a timely one that will allow the university to move forward with plant research, in an era of shrinking budgets and dwindling state financial support for the university. “This is an unprecedented opportunity to add capabilities and capacity we couldn’t otherwise afford,” said Shawn Kaeppler, a UW professor of agronomy who will serve as director of the new Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center.
            He sees this donation energizing the campus’s plant science research community.
            VandenBosch said she has been looking forward to the final steps in Monsanto’s donation to the university for some time. “This will be a research powerhouse for the state,” she said. Research at the globally recognized facility can focus on the state’s economically important crops as well as basic research on how plants perform, she added.
            Tom Adams, Monsanto’s vice president of global biotechnology said it was a “long path” to the donation when the company decided a year and a half ago that it would exit this site. “As technology continued to advance we decided to divest ourselves of real estate around the world and the question came up as to what to do with this facility,” he said.
            There are very few plant research facilities like this one. The number of patents that have been generated through scientists working at this facility is legendary – about 100. “Every transgenic soybean that matters has come through this site,” Adams said.
            Scientists working here also did significant work on cotton and corn.
            Adams said his company “took the initial steps” of putting the property up for sale, but noted that it would be too large a facility for a start-up company and was too small for a multinational company. Donating it to the UW seemed like a good fit.
            The “gene gun” that was first used to inject a gene into the soybean was used in one of the labs at this location and is now in a museum at the Smithsonian. It utilized microscopic gold beads carrying loops of DNA to create transgenic organisms.
            VandenBosch said that the plant science research facility was begun by UW scientists who started Cetus and she is pleased that it is now coming full circle and will be once again filled with UW plant scientists “and will continue to drive innovation.”
            Kaeppler said that the world has many challenges with 850 million people going hungry every day. “It’s easy to write papers but it’s more difficult to pass technology on to farmers,” he said, adding that work in this facility will make it possible to get innovations into the hands of growers.
            In the recent past, UW researchers have had to turn away grants, he said, for lack of facilities to do research in. Having this center will be a place where that kind of research can be carried out. Having the equipment that Monsanto left in the labs is also a significant gift, he added.
            The UW has also hired some of the people who worked on site for Monsanto, including a facility manager.
            Kaeppler said that the UW has a strong reputation in the plant science and this gift will only help add to that reputation. He mentioned ongoing research on genes in maize that affect the root structure and may end up making corn more drought-tolerant. Current soybean research involves insect and disease tolerance.
            Other plant research planned for the center will focus on oats, barley and wheat, soybeans and sorghum as well as corn.
            The labs and greenhouses will also be used in plant bio-energy research and to do plant phenotyping work – determining which plants or corn kernels, for example, have traits that are more economically important. Taking digital images and then crunching that data with specially designed computer programs can speed the analysis and selection of desirable individual plants.
            The facility will make it possible to link with companies for technology transfer research as well as research to understand the basic processes of plant biology, he said, adding that now UW plant scientists can pursue more grant-funded work from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture or with private groups like the Gates Foundation.
            Now that the property has become the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center plant scientists from all over the country have expressed interest in working collaboratively with the UW here, said one scientist, Andrew Bent.
            Kaeppler said that gene editing, which has the potential to change gene sequences in small ways, and leaves “less of a footprint behind” will likely be one topic of research here. Monsanto’s Adams said that gene editing, coupled with genomics and phenotype research has the potential to produce important results.
            Big bottlenecks in plant development, said Kaeppler are genetic transformation – putting desirable traits into plants – and plant regeneration, both of which can be addressed through the new WCIC.
            With this new facility, there will be new opportunities to expand on genetic traits in crops and also on the types of plants developed with genetic improvements. With rapidly developing methods of gene-editing techniques, plant DNA can be altered in more efficient and targeted ways – for drought tolerance, improved nutrient content and increased crop efficiency.