Clemson nurtures crops to help state cash in on biology ‘revolution’

abeam@thestate.comOctober 19, 2013 

  • More information

    $3.1 million- $138 million

    Growth of S.C. peanut crop in past 10 years

    380,000 and $182 million

    Acres and worth of

    S.C. soybean crop last year

    $8 million

    State money given

    to Clemson for genetic

    research on plants

— On one side of the road the crops stood 15 feet high, their long green leaves a rustling fortress of foliage.

On the other side, the crops were 3 feet high, with smaller leaves but large stems packed into tight rows.

The crops are the same – both are sorghum, a grass with a variety of uses for food and energy. But they look different because Stephen Kresovich, a geneticist at Clemson University, wants them to. Of the 30,000 genes in a sorghum plant, Kresovich changed four of them. He hopes to burn the tall sorghum for electricity – that’s why he wanted them tall, with lots of long, green leaves packed with energy. The short sorghum will go to feed hogs in North Carolina – which is why he wanted them short, with all of the good stuff packed into the grain, the part the hogs actually eat.

Kresovich is the new director of the Advanced Plant Technology Lab at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education center in Florence. State lawmakers have given the lab $8 million over the past two years, money to renovate a 25-year-old research building in Florence and to hire a slew of scientists. The idea, Kresovich said, is to take advantage of the “revolution going on in biology” when it comes to genetics.

Lots has been written about the impact of personalized medicine – for example, about mapping a person’s genome to come up with customized medical treatments – and Kresovich said the same thing is happening in plants. In 2001, it cost about $100 million to map a genome – all of the genes in a plant or person. Now it costs less than $10,000. Scientists project the price will eventually fall to $1,000, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

“We want to generate the biological data and computational power to find gold nuggets in the genome,” Kresovich said.

Kresovich and state lawmakers say they hope some of those “gold nuggets” could transform South Carolina’s economy. If Kresovich can breed a variety of sorghum that can be used for electricity, he says it could open the door for companies to locate in South Carolina to use the technology.

“It’s like cartography, like being an explorer in the 1500s on the new worlds, except I’m not physically stepping on things,” Kresovich said. “We have the perfect opportunity for engines of economic development. The opportunity is here. Why not take advantage of that?”

The project includes a $3 million renovation of a 25-year-old science lab at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center. The work is scheduled to be completed by 2015. But Clemson is not waiting for that to start its research. In addition to Kresovich, the university has hired Ben Fallen and Shyam Tallury as the first of six plant breeders. Fallen works with soybeans, while Tallury works with peanuts.

Soybeans are a particularly important crop to South Carolina. In 2012, S.C. farmers planted 380,000 acres of soybeans – more than corn – worth $182 million, according to the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service.

“Anything you pick up in a grocery store has soybean oil or some type of soybean product in it,” Fallen said.

Researchers at the University of Missouri discovered a breed of soybean that has high levels of oleic acid. That’s important because that acid means the soybean oil does not have to be hydrogenated, meaning it has less trans fat, meaning it is more heart healthy.

But the problem is you can’t grow the same soybeans in Missouri that you can grow in South Carolina – for a bunch of reasons, including climate and soil type. One of Fallen’s projects is trying to breed a soybean variety that has high levels of oleic acid that can help it tolerate South Carolina’s climate.

“Agriculture is sort of local. It’s like politics. It has to be optimized for your environment,” Kresovich said.

Fallen was hired in May, just in time to plant some soybeans in Florence. He said the breeding process can take eight to 10 years before a line is able to be released to the public.

State Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, said it is worth the wait. Williams is a member of the Senate budget subcommittee that approved the funding for the project. He said he hopes it will “expand the market for S.C. farm products.”

A good example is peanuts. Ten years ago, South Carolina farmers planted 10,000 acres of peanuts, worth $3.1 million. Last year, they planted 110,000 acres of peanuts, worth $138 million.

“Finding those markets out there so they can sell these peanuts and get good wages, that’s what Clemson has been about at this research center,” Williams said. “I think this is money well spent.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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