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Purdue poised on cutting edge of plant improvement

Marshall Martin
WHY NOT SMILE? Marshall Martin smiles as he stands outside the yet-to-be-completed Controlled Environments Phenotyping Facility on the Purdue University campus. And why not? Purdue is setting the bar high!
Expect major advances over the next decade and beyond due to a huge investment in two phenotyping centers.

A commercial for the Ford F-150 truck says: “This truck doesn’t raise the bar; it is the bar.” Whether you agree or not, it’s an effective message. No one could blame Purdue University if it decided to brand its Agronomy Department the same way. Not one, but two state-of-the-art plant phenotyping facilities have more than put the university on the map in the plant science world. Purdue is poised to redefine the map. 

Marshall Martin, interim director of the Purdue Ag Experiment Station, explains that these efforts grew out of the Purdue Moves initiative created by the university’s president, Mitch Daniels. Daniels pledged $20 million in support to various projects that could demonstrate far-reaching implications for improving research, Extension and/or educational efforts. The Purdue College of Agriculture successfully made the case that investing in plant remote sensing of all kinds and understanding how to use that data to improve plants could result in discoveries and technologies that people haven’t even dreamed about yet.

Major effort
The field phenotyping center at the Purdue Agronomy Center for Research and Educational, aka the Agronomy Farm, has operated for a year and a half. Data flows in as researchers from various departments and schools, not just agriculture, work together — just as visionary leaders hoped would happen.

Have world-class discoveries resulted in new technology? Not yet, but Martin is confident the foundation for those types of breakthroughs has been laid.

The ACRE facility is called the Indiana Corn and Soybean Innovation Center because the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Soybean Alliance both made major contributions on top of the startup money supplied by the university. Companies pitched in, as well.

Now a sister entity is almost ready to open on campus. The Controlled Environments Phenotyping Facility will allow researchers from several departments to grow plants in growth chambers, and then get state-of-the-art images of not only plant top growth, but roots, as well. The idea is to study plant reaction to various stimuli both in the field and in a controlled environment.

If you’re going to put up billboards that say you’re the fourth-ranked public university in the country, or publish that you’re the eighth-ranked school of agriculture in the world, or hold on to the title of top graduate and even undergraduate programs in ag and biological engineering in the country, you must back up words with actions and be willing to take risks.

Some might consider investing $20 million or more in state-of-the-art facilities and unproven technologies risky. Martin says Purdue considers it an investment.

Others are recognizing and rewarding Purdue’s commitment to improving agriculture, especially plant agriculture, for the future. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded a $5 million, five-year grant to Gebisa Ejeta and the Purdue Center for Global Food Security. The 2009 World Food Prize winner and his team are developing and distributing high-yielding sorghum varieties that are drought-tolerant and resistant to striga, a parasitic weed, to countries in Africa.

It would be fun just to speculate what type of plant improvements could come out of all these combined efforts. We will save that for another day. Suffice it to say, it may take more than one article to envision everything these bold steps by Purdue leadership might lead to in the future.   

TAGS: Technology
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