From the lab to the field: Center for Plant Science Innovation is transforming agriculture

From the lab to the field: Center for Plant Science Innovation is transforming agriculture

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While basic plant science research is at the core of the Center for Plant Science Innovation (PSI) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, what the Center actually does is anything but basic. PSI faculty are making groundbreaking discoveries in the areas of metabolic biochemistry, stress biology, and genetics and epigenetics. While the research is groundbreaking, PSI Director Edgar Cahoon believes the ability to bring these findings to the field is what makes the center unique.

bean in petri dish
Common bean in the process of being genetically transformed.

"The Center for Plant Science Innovation has a strong foundation in basic research and we really value that, but we also realize that this basic research has to be translated into new products and new technologies to have real impact," said Cahoon. Outcomes from PSI research have led to improved stress tolerance, more nutritious crops, improved bioenergy qualities and enhanced yields.

PSI originated from a call in the late 1990s from then University of Nebraska President L. Dennis Smith to develop a major signature program in plant science research that would bring together faculty between the university's City and East Campuses. The Plant Science Initiative was launched in 1999 with the goal of enhancing plant science research in support of Nebraska's agricultural industry.

Sally Mackenzie, Ralph and Alice Raikes Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture, provided leadership for the initiative and began laying the foundation to establish PSI as a center. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved the Center for Plant Science Innovation in January 2008.

Fast-forward 10 years and PSI has evolved into a multifaceted plant biology center with 23 faculty members and their labs, spanning four different departments across the university.

"The center provides us with the framework to promote collaboration among the different disciplines within plant sciences while training students and postdoctoral researchers who will be the next generation of academic and industrial scientists," said Cahoon, who has served as PSI director since 2010.

PSI comprises faculty from the departments of agronomy and horticulture, biochemistry, plant pathology and the School of Biological Sciences. It also has active collaborations with other university centers and initiatives such as the Food for Health Center, Water for Food Global Institute, Industrial Agricultural Processing Center, Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative and the Consortium for Integrated Translational Biology.

"Modern plant science research at the university has become even more robust thanks to the collaborations fostered by the Center for Plant Science Innovation," said Archie Clutter, Agricultural Research Division dean. "Outcomes from the center's novel research continue to transform agriculture from the lab to the field."

The majority of research within PSI is conducted at the Beadle Center on City Campus, in addition to greenhouses on East Campus and at Nebraska Innovation Campus. The center also has access to designated field facilities for evaluation of research under divergent climactic conditions. In-house expertise in crop transformation coupled with these facilities has become the basis for an agricultural biotechnology pipeline that allows PSI to maximize the impact of its research programs and bring knowledge to the field. PSI research is also supported by computational biology that guides gene discovery efforts and new gene editing techniques to expand the capacity of the pipeline for crop improvement.

This work has the potential to impact the bottom-line of Nebraska producers, especially when commodity markets are low. In addition to developing stress tolerant, nutritious crops at higher yields, a number of research projects are focused on enhancing the quality of crops, which would enable producers to earn higher margins.

Beyond Nebraska, PSI faculty have extensive international collaborations and conduct research that impacts the production and nutritional quality of staple crops in developing countries. From the development of salt-tolerant rice genes to combatting vitamin-A deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa, the center has placed a target on the challenge of global food security.

The Center for Plant Science Innovation is a prime example of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources' commitment to sustainable food production and water use efficiency around the world.

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