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July 29, 2002
Volume 80, Number 30
CENEAR 80 30 pp. 29-34
ISSN 0009-2347

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At St. Louis' Danforth Center, Roger Beachy is steering cutting-edge research aimed at addressing developing-world problems


Last December, former president Jimmy Carter visited the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. "I don't know of any other research center that I have ever visited that has a greater potential contribution to the well-being of the world," he remarked. "Within not too many years, the work that you do here will touch every human being who lives on Earth in a beneficial way."

GOOD GENES The Danforth Center attracts a diverse group of scientists including biochemists and chemists, such as research associate Zhihong Zhang, who inspects transgenic A. thaliana plants for interesting phenotypes.
Research at the not-for-profit Danforth Center focuses on providing food for the world's rapidly expanding population in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Its mission extends beyond the food, nutritional, and health needs of the developed world: The center has dedicated 10% of its resources and facilities to research specifically related to the needs of agriculture in developing countries. This mission has drawn a diverse group of biochemists, chemists, geneticists, and plant pathologists to the center.

Although they share a common mission, these investigators work on projects that range from studying the basic biology of plant roots to understanding plant defense mechanisms to leveraging biotechnology to improve the yield, disease resistance, and hardiness of crops.

When asked why they came to the Danforth Center, investigators cite the rich, collaborative environment and the strong focus on plant sciences. But its commitment to the developing world is what makes the center unique, they stress. And they credit the man driving that commitment, Danforth Center President and plant biologist Roger N. Beachy, with drawing them there.

"Roger's scientific reputation is outstanding," says Charles J. Arntzen, chairman of the department of plant biology and director of the Arizona Biomedical Institute at Arizona State University and former president of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca, N.Y. "And he has all the right motivations. The Danforth Center is lucky to have him."

Beachy--whose research at Washington University, St. Louis, during the 1980s led to the creation of the first transgenic crop, a virus-resistant tomato--spent seven years at Scripps Research Institute before returning to the Midwest in 1999 to head the Danforth Center. "At the time, private institutions were not making plant biology a priority," he says. "I welcomed the challenge of starting something new in an area of science that will deeply impact human health and welfare."

The center's mission, Beachy emphasizes, is built on a commitment to basic, interdisciplinary, and collaborative plant science. "By studying how plant roots respond to stresses in the soil, we hope to make crops more resistant to drought or salinity," he says. "By studying how plants produce vitamins and phytochemicals, we hope to enrich the nutritional quality of crops. And by studying how certain plants defend themselves against pests and pathogens, we hope to allow farmers to reduce the use of agrochemicals," he adds.

The Danforth Center was founded in 1998 in partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden; Monsanto; Purdue University; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the University of Missouri, Columbia; and Washington University. The center was created with funding from Monsanto's philanthropic arm, the Monsanto Fund, and the Danforth Foundation, a St. Louis-based philanthropic organization. In addition, the state of Missouri provided generous tax credits and Monsanto provided the land on which the building was built. Research grants, contracts, and endowment income will fund future research, Beachy says.

Many states and regions have looked to high-tech and biotechnology research to invigorate their local economies. But in the late 1990s, a group of St. Louis business, academic, and government leaders noted that the region's real strengths lay not just in high-tech or biotech but in plant and agricultural sciences.

These strengths are deeply rooted. More than half of the nation's food is grown within 500 miles of St. Louis. Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden boast top-notch research in plant science and biodiversity, respectively. St. Louis is also home to a number of companies with agricultural roots--including Monsanto, Nestle Purina, and Anheuser Busch--as well as the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association. In addition, the University of Missouri, Columbia; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Purdue University each have strong agriculture schools.

"The Danforth Center is intended to be a catalyst to encourage research collaboration in an area where the Midwest has traditionally been strong--plant and agricultural science," Beachy says. "Our regional partnership is an important component of the mission of the Midwest: food production, safety, and nutrition."

The links with partner institutions provide an opportunity to forge multi-institution collaborations. Many of the center's investigators serve as adjunct faculty at partner institutions, fostering collaborations beyond the center's walls.

"The Danforth Center presents a phenomenal opportunity to collaborate with people from a variety of different disciplines," says Karel R. Schubert, who is both an investigator in the Danforth Center and its vice president for technology management and science administration. "We synergize each other's research."

In addition, the Danforth Center aims to be a resource for scientists and students in developing countries. The center hopes to help its more than 40 foreign postdocs and trainees--who represent more than 20 different countries in Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, India, the Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America--develop the intellectual and technical skills relevant to the needs of agriculture in their home countries.

The center, housed in a three-story building with a large, central atrium, features state-of-the-art plant growth facilities that allow researchers to see how disease or genetic changes affect plant phenotypes. These include a 15,000-sq-ft greenhouse and environmentally controlled growth rooms and chambers. There are also X-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry, and integrated microscopy facilities.

The building houses 160 people, including 14 principal investigators. Faculty members' research projects span the gamut from basic plant biology to crop improvement.

Beachy's own research focuses on how plant viruses infect cells, replicate, and spread. His lab has shown that transgenic tobacco plants carrying the gene for the coat protein of tobacco mosaic virus containing a single amino acid substitution are extremely resistant to the virus. Beachy and his coworkers have found that expression of the mutant coat protein stymies production of a viral protein necessary for cell-to-cell spread of infection. His team is using the Danforth Center's live-cell imaging resources to track the movement of the latter protein during the course of viral infection and is working to solve its three-dimensional structure. Beachy hopes that an understanding of how these viruses infect and spread will eventually lead to new methods of preventing viral infection in transgenic plants.

Within Beachy's lab, Schubert is using genetic engineering to enhance the content and bioavailability of folate in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Folate is found naturally in green leafy vegetables and legumes, and a deficiency during pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects. Neural tube defects cause damage to a fetus' brain and spinal cord, but are relatively rare in the U.S. and other industrial countries where dietary supplementation and fortification of packaged foods with folic acid is common. Beachy and Schubert hope to create folate-fortified rice for growth in developing countries, where folate supplements or folate-fortified foods are not available and the rate of neural tube defects is more than 10 times that in the U.S.

DRIVING FORCE Danforth Center President Beachy hopes that both the developed and developing worlds will benefit from research at the center.

"The Danforth Center presents a phenomenal opportunity to collaborate with people from a variety of different disciplines."

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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

At St. Louis' Danforth Center, Roger Beachy is steering cutting-edge research aimed at addressing developing-world problems

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