Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been awarded $890,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to create an Innovation Center for Biotechnology-based Economic Development.

The center will be part of the Institute for Sustainable Renewable Resources (ISRR) at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville, Va. Craig Nessler, director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Jerzy Nowak, head of the Department of Horticulture and interim director of research and technology development and transfer for IALR, are the project leaders for this new initiative.

“The research conducted at this center will not only provide the foundation for the development of new bio-based products, but will also train workers with the skills needed to attract other biotech research and industry to the area,” said Nessler.

The center will serve as a high throughput functional genomics and genetic engineering, research, and service facility. That is, the facility will provide modern technology to rapidly analyze a plant or microbe's genetic information.

For example, researchers will be looking at important strawberry characteristics such as flavor, fragrance, and disease resistance. The genetic information that results in desirable traits will be determined. Using genomics, the traits will be enhanced or transferred to hardier plants, and coupled with a plant-breeding program, a strawberry plant will be developed that could grow in Southside Virginia.

“These value-added strawberries could provide an alternative to tobacco production,” said Nowak.

According to Nowak, the kinds of research that will be carried out will complement the research currently being conducted at ISRR in high-value horticulture and forestry.

The center will operate on a cost-recovery basis, providing state-of-the-art plant and microbe genetic transformation capabilities to the commercial research community and conduct contractual research on the production of high-value pharmaceuticals and other plant- or microbe-derived chemicals as feedstocks for industrial use.

The facility will be managed by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and will include an extension of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and the Core Lab Facility (CLF).

“Technology transfer and development are the driving forces behind creating new businesses on the one hand and stimulating economic development on the other.” said Bruno Sobral, executive and scientific director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. “The Innovation Center for Biotechnology-based Economic Development is poised to bring key competencies in the life sciences to the Southside Virginia region that will serve as a foundation for different commercial business models in the years ahead.”

“We are pleased with the continuing positive investments that the Tobacco Commission is providing to advance economic development strategies that are based in distributed research. This new investment coupled with the support received from state and federal sources will generate new jobs and opportunities for the people of Southside,” said John Dooley, vice provost for Outreach and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.

Ranked 11th in agricultural research expenditures by the National Science Foundation, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers students the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s leading agricultural scientists. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives students a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. The college is a national leader in incorporating technology, biotechnology, computer applications, and other recent scientific advances into its teaching program.

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