The fabric in those man-made pants hanging in your closet could soon be made with corn instead of petroleum-based products, and the rice on your dinner plate could provide your body with the same nutrients you now get through the daily multi-vitamin supplement you take each morning. The science behind those and many more innovations is taking shape at Mississippi State University's new Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute.
“The stage is clearly set for a century of significant advances through biotechnology. The goal of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute is to insure Mississippi State University's collective participation in fulfilling the promises of biotechnology,” said Alan Wood, director of the Institute.
Wood, a recent transplant from Cornell University in New York, said that while the 20th century was proclaimed by many as the century of physical sciences, the 21st century is beginning as the century of biotechnology.
“Although modern biotechnology had its beginnings more than 20 years ago, it has recently accomplished some of the most startling breakthroughs in science, not the least of which was the complete sequencing of the human genome,” he said. “The construction of the human genomic library is having a large influence on the way we approach the study of biological systems.”
The advancements in biotechnology, he said, are allowing scientists to study in greater detail the intricate nature of developmental events with multi-cellular organisms, disease processes, and the interactions of plant and animal communities.
While agricultural biotechnology to this point has focused mainly on the production of plants with herbicide, pest and disease resistance, that's only a glimpse into what the science of biotechnology will offer farmers and consumers in the near future.
Biotechnology is already providing agriculture some of the tools needed to reduce environmental pollution through the decreased need for chemical herbicides and pesticides. “In 2000, the use of these technologies in cotton alone in the United States was estimated to result in 19 million fewer applications of herbicides and 15 million fewer applications of insecticides,” Wood said. “In the near future, biotechnology will be used to further reduce the risks associated with farming through genetic modifications which will make plants more resistant to pests, diseases and drought.”
And that's just the beginning. The next frontier of biotechnology, he said, will likely include bio-engineered plants that can metabolize certain organic contaminants, cleaning up the environmental by reducing industrial waste and air pollution. In addition, plants may soon play an important role as environmental monitors or sentinels. “There are plants that can detect TNT, thereby pinpointing the location of landmines.”
Scientists at Mississippi State are already at work on biotechnology research projects that focus on the continued development of insect resistance, disease prevention and food safety.
In one study at the university, scientists have isolated a gene in corn which apparently inhibits feeding by caterpillars.
“Entomologists Dawn Luthe and Paul Williams have discovered a protein in corn that is induced following insect feeding. The ingestion of this protein significantly inhibits the growth and development of insect larvae, leading to a significant reduction in plant damage,” Wood said.
“They have isolated the gene, called the mir 1 gene, and documented that it causes the breakdown of the peritrophic membrane of insect larvae. They are now in the process of moving this gene into other crops in an attempt to achieve insect control. This mir 1 gene may prove to be an excellent alternative to the Bt gene and could be the answer to the development of any Bt-resistant insect populations.”
Other ongoing studies, involving the institute, include using a luminescent light-emitting bacteria to study disease progression in catfish and chicken eggs.
Scientists at Mississippi State are also using biotechnology in an attempt to isolate, and possibly eliminate, the gene responsible for sexual maturity in trees. “As with humans, sexually immature trees grow very fast, and when trees and humans reach sexual maturity they stop growing. The idea is to knock out the gene responsible for the onset of sexual maturity, possibly leading to the continual growth of the tree,” Wood said.
“The Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute will be a virtual institute in that every Mississippi State University faculty member will be a member of the institute because this technology applies to every aspect of biology,” he said.
The institute, according to Wood, will be fully equipped with state-of-the art scientific equipment that will include biotechnology-related computer software, equipment for DNA sequencing, imaging systems, and a proteomic center. The facility will also sponsor a distinguished lecture series for world-renowned scientists to interact with students and faculty at the university and will set up a competitive grants program for biotechnology projects.
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Lesson in genetics
FIFTEEN YEARS ago the language of the Internet sounded like gibberish to most farmers. Now words like e-mail, online, and download are likely part of your everyday vocabulary. Ten years from now the same may be said for the language of biotechnology. Words that were once confined to the dark corridors of higher learning institutions, are now making their way into conversations among farmers at local coffee shops and commodity meetings.
To better understand the genetics behind the science of biotechnology, it might help to breakdown the processes of this ever-evolving science into more manageable bite-sized pieces. To this end, Delta Farm Press, with the help of Alan Wood, director of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute at Mississippi State University, has developed the following glossary of biotechnology terms.
Genome — A genome is the complete set of genes for an organism.
Put simply, a genome is a parts list for an organism. It's like getting a complete parts list for a car, and while it is helpful, it alone won't tell you how the car works. You still need more information before you can answer the question, ‘How does this work?’
“The complete genomes of more than 20 organisms have been sequenced by scientists to date. We've also discovered the presence of a gene in an organism does not necessarily mean it is expressed — turned on,” Wood said.
Transcriptome — This is the complete set of messenger RNA present in a cell, tissue or organ. Messenger RNA — ribonucleic acid — carries genetic information from one place to another in an organism, and in most cases is translated into a protein.
“Some recent biotechnology has moved to the transcriptome or microchip technology, which can help researchers determine which messenger RNAs are being transcribed (expressed) from the genes,” Wood said. “It's like a repair manual for a car. It provides you with more information, but you are still not sure exactly how the car runs.”
Proteome — Proteome is the complete set of proteins present in a cell, tissue or organ.
This is where the rubber meets the road. It's the how-to manual for how something works, because it tells you what is going on in a cell.
Wood said, “The realization that just because a messenger RNA is transcribed from a gene may not mean that is translated to a protein has led to the development of proteiomic technology, which tells us the type and amount of protein made under certain conditions.”
Post-proteome — Post-proteome is a complete characterization of post-translation modifications.
“It is now being appreciated that just because a protein is made does not mean that it is active. Some proteins may need to be modified after translation in order to become active,” said Wood. “We are currently setting up a proteomic center at the Biotechnology Institute, which will be used to study the proteomes of insect, plants, fish and bacteria. The future prospects for understanding complex genetics is really quite remarkable.”