Center for Plant Science Innovation: Developing Better Foods and Fuels

By Tim Duey

Ed Cahoon's earliest years were spent on a Virginia soybean farm. Now, decades later, he's on the cutting edge of soybean research.

"I'm interested in things like engineering soybeans to make new types of oils to alter the fatty acid composition to make the soybean more healthy, or more useful for applications like biodiesel production," he said. Cahoon has conducted research in both the public and the private sectors and is now director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation that operates at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The center and its staff of nearly 100 researchers, technicians, graduate students and undergraduate students perform a diverse array of research that has the potential to impact millions of lives. They meet challenges ranging from developing renewable fuels to combating world hunger with genetically engineered crops.

Though researchers worldwide are participating in much of the center's work, Cahoon's team specializes in areas of study that have a particular impact on Nebraskans, such as work with camelina, a crop that is used to make biodiesel fuel and is productive in areas of low rainfall such as western Nebraska.

Innovations in Food
Perhaps the Center for Plant Science Innovation's most commercially successful project involves the genetic engineering of soybeans.

"Within the Center for Plant Science Innovation, two of our researchers, Don Weeks and Tom Clemente, came up with a way to take a gene from a bacterium that can break down a particular type of herbicide called dicamba, and they've isolated the gene and introduced it into plants," Cahoon said. "The resulting plants are dicamba-resistant. This is an important trait for farmers and worth a lot of money."

That research is worth a lot of money because it is being adopted into industry-leading agricultural technology. Monsanto licensed the dicamba-resistance gene to supplement their Roundup Ready™ soybeans, which dominate upwards of 80% of the soybean market. Roundup Ready™ soybeans are so dominant that weeds have begun to adjust to its advantages, becoming resistant to the same herbicides to which Roundup Ready™ soybeans are resistant.

Those same weeds aren't resistant to dicamba, which has proven to be extremely effective in trials at UNL's Agricultural Research and Development Center farms near Mead, Neb. The dicamba-resistant plants are in the commercial production phase with Monsanto, and should become an integral part of its second generation Roundup Ready™ seeds soon. This innovation benefits soybean farmers by eliminating pesticide-resistant broadleaf weeds and thus increasing their crop yields.

"We hope in a few years these crops will actually be on the market that started from this basic research on a bacterium at UNL and now will soon generate a product that will benefit farmers throughout the world and benefit the university financially, and also be a product that farmers in
Nebraska can use," Cahoon said.

Edgar Cahoon

Dr. Edgar Cahoon

In addition to increasing productivity at home, the center is also using its research to add value to agricultural products abroad. It is part of a large research effort to increase the nutritional value of the potato-like cassava, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The cassava is a staple food for people in sub-Saharan Africa and is confined mostly to subsistence agriculture and back yard gardens since it is very easy to grow, Cahoon said. But it offers little nutritional value, apart from its high caloric content. In regions where food is scarce or relatively unaffordable to a large segment of the population, the cassava can stave off starvation. The problem is that a diet high in cassava can be deficient in certain micronutrients. That is the challenge the center is trying to address, he added.

"We're trying to engineer cassava to make higher levels of pro-vitamin A, which is an essential nutrient that is limited in the diets of large portions of Africa and parts of the developing world," Cahoon said.

Biofuel Research
The center is also involved in biofuels research, that is, the attempt to create fuel from plants. The center's research with camelina focuses on trying to turn it into a viable source of fuel. An eastern-European food crop, camelina has some unique traits that make it especially attractive to Nebraskans.

"It doesn't require a lot of inputs, such as fertilizer, to grow well. So it's a low-input crop that grows well under low rainfall conditions similar to what we have in western Nebraska," Cahoon said. "There's a lot of interest in this as an alternative oil seed crop to get vegetable oils out of to use for biodiesel production."

In addition to camelina, researchers at the center are also trying to turn other plants into biofuels. Algae could potentially produce more biofuel than any other plant because of the huge biomass it's capable of producing in a relatively small area, Cahoon said. A lot of it can be grown in a relatively small space. But according to Cahoon, it's still a long way from being a useful source of fuel.

"The problem is that people really don't know how to tap the potential of algae and that's really where the research is," Cahoon said. "Algae doesn't produce oil under normal conditions. You have to stress it ... and cause it to accumulate oil that can then be converted into biodiesel."

The amount of nitrogen in the media in which the algae is growing needs to be decreased to get it to produce oil. Even when that's done there are still problems with harvesting the algae and extracting the oil in a way that is cost-effective, he said.

Cahoon said research at the Center for Plant Science Innovation is funded from a variety of sources.
Some funding comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; some from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and other federal sources; some from private industry and some from the soybean checkoff fund.

Additionally, Cahoon is one of the principal investigators of an Energy Frontiers Research Center grant that is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to Cahoon, time to focus on the underlying biology of plants is the major advantage the Center for Plant Science Innovation has over private corporations, which are often constrained by tight commercialization timelines. Cahoon said that the center's university setting allows researchers to have more flexibility than industry researchers.

"It's a little bit different focus," Cahoon said. "We can spend more time doing the basic research that companies don't do."


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