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National weapons lab helps create new technology for agriculture

What business would the nation's premier weapons development laboratory have with agriculture?

For the most part, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was developed to prosecute the now famous Manhattan Project, the secret atomic bomb development program that gave birth to a new era of nuclear science.

But in addition to the development and creation of Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that brought an end to World War II, the lab, in post war days, has been a cauldron of the best and brightest scientific minds gathered from around the world to research and develop knowledge and technology in multiple fields of science.

From historical groundwork in the development of lasers and cryogenics to the research and development of the human genome, the nation's premiere lab provides cutting edge research in support of more than just weapons development. Consider, for instance, such groundbreaking work in the areas of super computing and space programs that have developed technology for use by NASA.

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Now it seems United States agriculture will be the next beneficiary of the lab's extensive research capability, which many claim has the potential to take agricultural technology to a new level.  A new and developing technology at the lab has the potential to move U.S. agricultural research, food safety and even profits to new heights, quite literally a giant leap forward for mankind.

The creation of the National Agriculture Genotyping Center (NAGC) has been a dream hard fought for in U.S. Agricultural circles; it’s a step some consider a miracle considering the current political environment in Washington. Currently, the U.S. government spends a mere 1 percent of its annual budget in support of agriculture research through the USDA. To complicate matters, financial support for research has actually been flat or declined since the 1980s.

But with the passage of time and the pressing need for new and better methods of providing food safety and maintaining a profitable industry to keep younger farmers interested in carrying on the tradition of food production, global competitiveness may have been the final straw that persuaded lawmakers to make a firm commitment to move forward with plans to develop the NAGC.

After all, a 25-year lag in research and useful commercialization of technology and products puts U.S. agriculture in the crosshairs of developing agricultural advancements and programs from competing nations like Brazil and India.


U.S. falls behind competitive nations in R&D

In a well documented report by the USDA Agricultural Research, Education and Economics Advisory Board, data indicated China, India and Brazil were far ahead of U.S. Agriculture in terms of percentage of dollars dedicated to the advancement of agriculture production. According to the report, this is just one of the reasons creation of the NAGC is critical to maintain agricultural leadership, which will affect the safety, quality and health of the U.S. food supply system and its overall economy.

The mission to create the NAGC became a unique partnership effort involving Los Alamos National Laboratory, The National Corn Growers Association and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. According to NAGC Research Director Dr. Richard Vierling, it is the first time a farmer-led association will have a direct impact on research agendas, which can ultimately assist farmers in higher quality yields and lower production costs.

The National Corn Growers Association recently selected Fargo as the site for NAGC.

“This is a first-time-ever, huge step for a farmer-led association that gives growers more influence on research agendas,” Vierling said.

The announcement for plans for the center to open this October at the federal Biosciences Research Laboratory on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo was some six years in the making. Vierling said it was also a most welcome announcement.

In 2009 the science behind the project was completed by a consortium of researchers mapping the corn genome, known as the maize genome project. It is the science data from this project and the new assay technology from LANL in Los Alamos, New Mexico, that will dramatically propel agriculture production research forward.

Mapping holds the secret to better tools for ag

Successful mapping of the corn genome was the largest genetic blueprint for any plant species to date, most notably the elements that move around the genome and cause mutations. According to Richard Wilson, the director of the Genome Center at Washington University, who heads the maize-genome project, data can now assist in finding genes that underlie certain traits, which will allow creation of tools to create those desirable traits into new generations of plants.

In the past, the testing DNA samples and discovering data was a long, expensive and arduous process, often limited to major laboratories with substantial budgets and a limited research scope.


Now that the corn genome has been mapped along with its whole DNA sequence including all its genes, it has come to be known as a genotype. This is where LANL brings science technology into the game. The Lab developed a "rapid multiplex assay," an investigative procedure used by scientists. This technology allows the rapid testing of many unique DNA samples much faster and at less cost than through competing technology. It was specifically developed for the ag sector.

According to the NAGC website, the technology will help develop new tests to suit customers’ specific needs, on-site tests for diseases in corn and other crops and for food-borne illnesses, enhancing food production and food safety, biofuel research and development, and national security.

The National Agriculture Genotyping Center will open in October at the federal Biosciences Research Laboratory on the North Dakota State University campus. Its primary goal will be to develop on-site tests for diseases in corn and other crops.

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