Researchers putting biotech lab to good use

posted Dec. 4, 2017 8:43 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

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MIDDLETON — It has been about 11 months since Monsanto turned over the keys to its multimillion-dollar biotech laboratory to UW-Madison officials, and during that time, plant researchers have been making progress on what they hope will be many discoveries that benefit crop farmers in Wisconsin and across the country.

Shawn Kaeppler, a UW-Madison agronomy professor and director of the new Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center, provided an update to Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association members Nov. 28 during the organization’s annual meeting at the site. He said UW-Madison officials have begun to put Monsanto’s donation into perspective as they have put some of their research programs in place.

“To build something like this on campus would probably cost $80 million,” Kaeppler said. “No university is going to build such a facility (in this budget climate).”

He described the Middleton facility as a “turnkey operation” that was ready to be put into use by UW-Madison plant researchers. The facility was designed “by people who made the processes as efficient as possible.”

The Middleton facility features 20 greenhouses encompassing 28,000 square feet; 15,000 square feet of shade houses and light rooms; and 50,000 square feet of laboratory space on 4.5 acres. It is the facility in which Roundup Ready soybeans and bio-engineered cotton were developed in the early days of plant biotechnology.

Monsanto donated the facility to UW-Madison’s University Research Park when the company decided to consolidate its research efforts at its headquarters in St. Louis. The donation was valued at about $10 million.

Jack Kaltenberg of Sun Prairie, owner of Partners in Production seed company and Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association president, described the WCIC as a “marvelous facility” that will be important for plant research for years to come.

“We have an amazing staff that is ready to advance Wisconsin crop research,” Kaeppler said. “We have at your access a highly professional group to help you and other growers and seed producers in the U.S.”

Kaeppler said despite the fact that biotechnology has allowed seeds to be produced that are drought, pest and disease resistant and boost production, many people are still concerned about “transgenic things” that might end up in their food supply.

“People will swallow health supplements that have a long list of ingredients and drive cars that tend to crash into each other, but they still act like you are taking their first child if you (use gene editing) to produce waxy corn,” Kaeppler said.

Kaeppler said one of his colleagues in gene editing was talking to a U.S. senator about biotech products, and the senator said he gets far more anti-biotech letters than pro-biotech letters.

“He said they are trying to be logical and do what is going to benefit the market, farmers and consumers, but the only people they hear from are the anti-GMO people,” Kaeppler said. “If we want to have the potential to use products that make sense, we have to understand what’s going on (in the political world). If biotech products might benefit you as a grower or a seed seller, your advocacy matters.”

Kaeppler said some people in the big food industry say they could care less whether a product has GMO ingredients or not, but non-GMO products are the only growth market in the food industry.

“The non-GMO label on that package helps those companies sell their products,” he said.

Kaeppler said there are countries that sell non-GMO grain that benefit from the U.S. grain industry having issues with selling its grain to other countries.

“You’ve heard about Russia maybe interfering with the presidential election, well there have also been many reports of Russia and other countries putting fire on the anti-GMO sentiment, because it benefits them,” he said. “There are countries around the world that benefit (when people oppose using genetically modified products).”

Kaeppler told a story of Gates Foundation representatives expressing interest in research on cowpeas that could translate into healthier and more productive plants for feeding hungry people around the world. WCIC researchers determined it would be a long process to acquire cowpea seed through their usual channels, so they bought some of the seeds off of Ebay and began isolating the seeds’ embryos through manual and mechanical processes.

He said it could be possible to do gene constructs on humans to deal with a specific disease or disorder.

“If someone’s son or daughter was cured by gene editing, I think they would be a lot less concerned about eating a crop produced by gene editing,” Kaeppler said.

Kaeppler said the WCIC has received inquiries from about 65 public institutions about conducting research at the site, and some of those inquiries have turned into research projects. There has also been interest from private sector firms, he said, and those firms tend to come up with research funds faster than public institutions.

“As a public scientist, you have an idea, write a grant and hope it gets funded,” he said. “The private sector has the money right way.”

Getting a biotech product to market is not always an easy process, Kaeppler said, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency all get in on the action before a product is approved.

“You want to use a process that doesn’t complicate your ability to market a product in the end,” he said.

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