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VIEW FROM THE TOP
LINKING PLANT SCIENCE TO BETTER CROP USES
Editor's Note: Roger Beachy, Ph.D., is president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis. The not-for-profit Center is the product of a partnership joining the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto Co., Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Washington University in St. Louis, with additional support from the Danforth Foundation and the State of Missouri.

What is the vision and purpose of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center?

The Danforth Center was conceived about seven years ago as a component of the St. Louis region's efforts to enhance research in the plant sciences. At the time, it was recognized that what was missing was an institution focused on basic science and its applications for ag-related industries. Our mission is quite broad and includes research directly related to agriculture, such as improving drought tolerance, or research related to health, as in creating plants with enhanced nutritional benefits. Our board of directors established a vision that research done at the Center should benefit both the region and the world while contributing to the economic growth of the St. Louis region and Missouri.

What sets the Danforth Center apart from other research institutions?

Although most of our research is basic in nature, a majority is directed at projects to meet the needs of the consumer, the farmer and markets worldwide - this makes our mission quite special. When we first set out to identify the areas in which our researchers would participate, I spoke with members of the private sector and considered their needs for the next 10 to 15 years. I then considered the types of research being funded by government granting agencies. Finally, we considered what was needed most in international agriculture. The group of researchers hired has skill sets that span the full range of basic research - from the structure of molecules to the studies of whole plants. I don't know of any other institution that has been able to encompass the breadth of the skills that are held by our scientists.

What areas are your scientists currently focused on?

Our research is focused on developing plants that are tolerant to drought, can defend themselves against certain pests and diseases, and are enriched in vitamins and minerals, known as biofortification. We also conduct research to develop crops that produce biorenewable materials. In the area of biofortification, we work closely with food companies, doctors and health specialists, and international organizations to ensure that our research is focused on important topic areas, thereby increasing the likelihood that the research is funded by sources who value the research team as well as the project. Drought tolerance also is of growing importance around the world. Scientists are continuing to learn how to enhance crop yields with fewer inputs. Finally, the topic of biorenewable resources is important as we consider the future of plants and how they may someday be used for more than just food to eat. Energy is one of these uses, but there are many more possibilities.

How does a research institution such as the Danforth Center measure its success?

We gauge our success through grants and contracts, through research projects that lead to publications, and through research that leads to inventions. The success of each of our 14 teams of researchers is measured by scientific output and how well they do in bringing in grants and contracts. So far, we have done very well in this arena, and I am confident that we will meet and likely exceed next year's numbers. My goal is that by 2010 we will have a $16 million to $18 million research enterprise, with 65 to 70 percent of that funded by grants and contracts.

What do you foresee as the top potential research developments over the next decade?

There are several areas in which to anticipate significant research discoveries, including: (1) protecting plants from diseases or contaminants that make them unsafe for foods or feeds; (2) research resulting in a better understanding of how foods relate to human health and using such knowledge to enhance well-being; and (3) teaching plants to produce valuable products, such as pharmaceuticals, or nanomaterials, or other products that spur the growth of new industrial activities while enhancing the value of agriculture. Ideally, this will increase the chances for the farmer to have a better, more sustained use of his crop - one not as easily affected by world markets. To support farmers' bottom lines, we see a future need for specific funding to support research that will create better value crops for U.S. farmers and provides value to processors and food producers.


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