COLUMBUS, Ohio - In recent years, biotechnology has largely been associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), or some other form of cross breeding or genetic alteration.
However, for over 70 researchers at 11 universities throughout Ohio, biotechnology embraces a much broader range of scientific study that not only increases opportunities in agriculture, but has a positive impact on the environment and benefits people as well.
Through research projects ranging from botany to zoology, participants of the Ohio Plant Biotechnology Consortium share information on issues that are important to Ohio's agricultural and natural resources industries.
"The idea was to optimize interaction between scientists with different areas of expertise throughout the state to the end of providing information and potential products that consumers, farmers and businesses could use," said Terry Graham, an Ohio State University plant pathologist and chairman of the organization. "Research activities are broad, going from really basic research to more applied projects. It is important to realize that many projects that fall under the realm of biotechnology don't even involve genetic engineering."
Universities that are part of the consortium include Ohio State, Bowling Green State University, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, Medical College of Ohio, Miami University, Ohio University, University of Cincinnati, University of Toledo, Wright State University and Youngstown State University.
Research projects include controlling disease in chestnut trees; developing new corn hybrids; developing defense mechanisms in soybeans to control insects and diseases; developing new yeast varieties to improve wine making; establishing genomic libraries for crop plants; working with predacious insects to control crop pests; and working to make seed oil more nutritious.
"We've identified 16 broad areas that we believe would have an economic impact on Ohio industries," said Graham. Some of those areas include new uses for traditional crops, alternative crop development, plant bio-remediation, stress alleviation, plant-mineral nutrition, pest and pathogen resistance and development of neutriceuticals.
One project of interest is developing cold-hardy palms for Ohio's green industry.
Although palms are often considered strictly tropical plants, a number of varieties can potentially grow in temperate areas where winters occasionally drop below zero. Since 1998 at Miami University, approximately 150 palms have been integrated into the campus landscape by OPBC researchers to evaluate their hardiness in southern Ohio winters.
"This is the largest research collection of palms outside the southern U.S.," said David Francko, professor and chairman for the Miami University's Department of Botany and one of the project's researchers.
Over 25 varieties have been successfully cultivated, including the cabbage palmetto, the state tree of Florida and South Carolina. OPBC researchers aim to propagate especially hardy individuals using plant tissue culture, thus creating new lines of palms to open up new opportunities for the Ohio horticulture trade in the coming years.
In other work, colleagues at Ohio State, Ohio University, Bowling Green State University and Miami University are working together on two projects aimed at controlling a root rot pathogen of soybean.
Graham, a researcher of one of the projects notes that "this single pathogen causes an estimated loss of over $60 million per year in Ohio alone."
Importantly, the research is aimed at understanding and activating the plant's own defense system, much like immunization of animals. If successful, the projects could lead to both lowered use of pesticides and also protection against a range of diseases other than soybean root rot.
"Agriculture and natural resources are multi-billion dollar industries in Ohio," said Graham. "Working together on research projects to develop new opportunities for Ohio farmers and businesses not only is beneficial to us but is beneficial to the economy as well."
The Ohio Plant Biotechnology Consortium, which has been in existence for two years, is funded by a competitive grant program administered through Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). For more information on the consortium log onto http://opbc.osu.edu.