Purdue Ag to receive major funding for plant sciences

Ben Hall, a Purdue graduate student in agronomy, collects leaf reflectance data in a soybean field.
Ben Hall, a Purdue graduate student in agronomy, collects leaf reflectance data in a soybean field to determine variation in nitrogen content in the plants' leaves. Sensor technology has proven to be a precise and efficient method for phenotyping breeding populations. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Purdue's College of Agriculture will receive more than $20 million in university funding for plant sciences research and education to strengthen Purdue's leadership in developing novel ways to help feed a rapidly growing world population.

The plant sciences initiative, announced by President Mitch Daniels Sept. 12, is among 10 targeted programs designed to enhance research and educational opportunities for students and broaden Purdue's global impact.

"One of the critical questions we face is how to feed a growing world population," Daniels said. "This initiative can lead to answers to that question by helping to produce plants that have higher yields and can grow in a variety of environmental conditions."

The College of Agriculture plans to add 10 new faculty positions, establish some new facilities and remodel existing facilities, and provide programmatic support for research and student recruitment and education.

The investment will dramatically expand Purdue's capabilities in plant sciences, helping the university move discoveries from the laboratory to commercialization or to the farm in innovative ways, said Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture.

"In addition, we will be embedding educational opportunities for students throughout this process of discovery and innovation, creating a unique learning opportunity for the next generation of leaders in the plant sciences," Akridge said.

Purdue University's College of Agriculture will receive more than 20 million dollars in university funding for plant science research and education.

Gebisa Ejeta, distinguished professor of agronomy and 2009 World Food Prize laureate, said the funding reflects Purdue's leadership role in working to find ways to feed a world population expected to increase from about 7 billion now to 9 billion by 2050.

"Science, technology and innovation are key to feeding humanity sustainably," Ejeta said. "With this investment, Purdue is making a commitment to the future of agriculture in Indiana and beyond, and showing the collective resolve that we all share at this institution to remain among the very top tier of leading universities in the world."

The plant sciences investment will be divided into these main areas, with student engagement a part of each:

  • Expanding research and education in plant biology through 10 new faculty hires that would be affiliated with a new Center for Molecular Agriculture.

  • Enhancing the college's ability to move research discoveries into commercially important crops with development of a plant transformation facility, which will bridge a gap between identification of valuable genes in crop production and their commercialization.

  • Building high-speed, large-scale capabilities to assess crop characteristics and performance through automated field phenotyping that will provide for detailed assessments of plant traits that are important for both research and commercialization.

  • Establishing a plant commercialization incubator facility to create opportunities for plant sciences faculty and students to move their ideas to the farm and the marketplace through commercialization and licensing arrangements.

  • Developing student leaders in the plant sciences through a precollege summer institute and in-college programs to help attract students to the discipline and retain them; establishing student research and experiential learning activities throughout the curriculum; and engaging them in licensing and commercialization.

"This investment in the plant science research and education pipeline will catapult Purdue's efforts to enable faculty and students to translate their creativity into new products to help feed a hungry world," said Karen Plaut, senior associate dean for research and faculty affairs.

By Keith Robinson

Ag students garner top senior awards

Agriculture majors Gabe Rangel and Laura Donaldson: 2013's top graduating seniors at Purdue.
Agriculture majors Gabe Rangel and Laura Donaldson were selected as 2013's top graduating seniors at Purdue. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Purdue College of Agriculture alumni Gabe Rangel and Laura Donaldson come from diverse backgrounds.

Rangel, a biochemistry major, grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Pike High School, a large Indiana high school with a graduating class of 660.

Donaldson, an agribusiness management major, grew up on a farm and graduated from tiny South Newton High School near Kentland, one of Indiana's smaller communities. In fact, Donaldson sometimes had more people in her classes at Purdue than were in her high school graduating class of 66.

But the May graduates shared a record of sustained excellence in academics, leadership, service and character that earned them the honor of top graduating seniors for the 2012-13 school year.

It is the second time College of Agriculture students have earned the G.A. Ross (top senior male) and Flora Roberts (top senior female) awards in the same year. Amir Faghih and Tanya Hadley were the top seniors of the class of 2006.

Of the 55 graduating men who have won the Ross Award since it was established in 1959, 22 were College of Agriculture students. Donaldson is the seventh Agriculture student to win the Flora Roberts Award, named after a member of Purdue's Class of 1887.

In June, Donaldson started a career in marketing with John Deere.

Rangel, the first student to be named outstanding freshman, sophomore, junior and senior student of the college, was married in June, before heading off to Harvard University to pursue a Ph.D. in biological sciences and public health.

By Tom Campbell

Discovery of gene function may help prevent kidney stones

The discovery of a gene's function in E. coli and other bacteria might lead to a probiotic to prevent the most common type of kidney stone, according to a Purdue University study.

Human cells can't process oxalate, an acidic chemical found in nearly all plants we eat, so oxalate absorbed from food must be excreted from the body. Calcium-oxalate urinary stones can form when oxalate reaches high concentrations in the kidneys.

Biochemistry researcher T. Joseph Kappock and his team made the discovery during a study of genes in Acetobacter aceti, a harmless bacterium typically used to convert wine to vinegar.

The researchers found that Acetobacter aceti and E. coli contain an enzyme with a previously unknown function, called YfdE in E. coli. They followed a hunch that the enzyme would use oxalate.

Their results connected oxalate degradation to bacterial metabolism. The research may help identify beneficial bacteria that could serve as probiotic agents in the human gastrointestinal tract to reduce the risk of kidney stones.

By Olivia Maddox

Purdue Agriculture ranks sixth-best in the world

A British company that specializes in information about higher education and careers ranks the Purdue College of Agriculture sixth among agricultural institutions worldwide.

Quacquarelli Symonds ranks learning institutions in 31 categories based on several metrics.

"This ranking is testimony to the hard work of College of Agriculture faculty, staff and students, and the support we receive from the university, stakeholders, partners and alumni," said Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture. "Recognitions such as this QS ranking illustrate the impact our people have."

Universities are ranked based on four main criteria: the number of times research publications from the institution were cited by other researchers in professional journals; the opinions of other academics in the field; the opinions of employers in the field; and the "H-index," a quantitative and qualitative measurement of research paper output.

By Keith Robinson

Web Extra

Aquaculture industry growing
in state

The business of raising fish may still be relatively small in Indiana, but it is a growing part of the state's agricultural economy.

Indiana's aquaculture industry includes production for human food, ornamental fish for aquariums and recreational fish stocked in ponds and lakes.

Estimated sales from Indiana fish farms amounted to more than $15 million in 2012, an increase from $3.5 million in 2006, according to the Purdue Extension publication Economic Importance of the Aquaculture Industry in Indiana. About 50 fish producers operate in Indiana, compared with 18 just seven years ago.

"While aquaculture is not the most well-known industry in Indiana's agriculture sector, it has seen steady growth and is very important to the state's economy," Kwamena K. Quagrainie, aquaculture marketing specialist, said.

Indiana's aquaculture industry ranges from small-scale producers raising fish in their backyards to large-scale producers growing fish to sell in national and international markets. The industry includes production of fish for human food, ornamental fish for aquariums and recreational fish that are stocked in private and public ponds and lakes.

By Keith Robinson

Indiana wine wins top honors

Indiana-grown white wine grapes
Indiana-grown Vignoles is used in wines that have won Wine of the Year for the past two years at the Indy International Wine Competition. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The top award in the 2013 Indy International Wine Competition went to an Indiana winery for the second year in a row.

Huber's Orchard, Winery & Vineyards of Starlight, Ind., won Wine of the Year for its 2012 Vignoles, besting 2,300 other wines in the three-day competition at Purdue University. Entries from 39 states and 14 countries, including France, Australia, Chile and Greece, were judged on appearance, aroma, taste and aftertaste by 44 international judges.

"For an Indiana winery to win Wine of the Year is very exciting for the Indiana wine industry," said Jeanette Merritt, marketing director for the Purdue Wine Grape Team, organizer of the competition. "Indiana wines are outstanding; all of our wineries proved that in the amount of medals they won this year."

The Purdue Wine Grape Team has organized the Indy International Wine Competition since 1992, for the past seven years under the leadership of enology professor Christian Butzke.

"The Indy's international wine judges truly represent the ever-changing palate of the American public," said Butzke. "By giving consumers advice on more than 2,000 new wines from 14 countries, they recognize the incredible diversity and creativity of our local and international winemakers and the vibrant state of the global wine industry. Wine has become the coolest and most dynamic beverage in the world by far."

By Jeanette Merritt

Web Extra

Inheritance tax change helps farm beneficiaries

Hands passing plant in clump of soil. 

The repeal of Indiana's Inheritance Tax has the potential to help farm families who have valuable land, equipment and monetary assets.

The repeal, signed into law in May, is backdated to Jan. 1, 2013.

"The inheritance tax was an issue for those transferring more than modest wealth to heirs and for transfer to perhaps unrelated parties," said Gerry Harrison, a Purdue Extension agricultural economist.

The problem for beneficiaries was that a farm inheritance often includes land and equipment. Without an additional cash inheritance, beneficiaries would have to come up with the money to cover inheritance tax bills.

For example, in 2012 three siblings who inherited a parcel of farmland valued at $1 million from a family friend faced an inheritance tax of about $100,000.

"Farmland market values have risen a lot in recent years," Harrison said. "Many farmers and landowners who have retired from farming or inherited land with plans for just a few beneficiaries would have an estate that faced significant Indiana inheritance tax."

By Jennifer Stewart

Genome duplication aids plant's survival in saline soils

Agriculture majors Gabe Rangel and Laura Donaldson: 2013's top graduating seniors at Purdue.
Purdue researcher Brian Dilkes studied a plant of the genus Arabidopsis to makes discoveries about how plants survive in saline soils. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Having more than two sets of chromosomes can increase a plant's ability to take up nutrients and survive in saline soils.

In a joint study by Purdue University and the University of Aberdeen, researchers found that polyploidy, the condition of having more than two genome copies, causes the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana to accumulate a greater amount of potassium in its leaves and demonstrate a higher tolerance to saline environments. Most flowering plants are diploid, having two copies of a genome.

"Polyploidy has an immediate, direct influence on the accumulation of required nutrient elements in plant leaves," said Brian Dilkes, a Purdue plant geneticist. "This shows how polyploidy can play a role in plant adaptation and may explain why genomes in plants evolve the way they do."

Dilkes says the altered nutrient uptake observed in Arabidopsis thaliana could hold true for other plant species.

"Many crops are already polyploids, but we can make use of these findings in a variety of species," he said. "Polyploidy could be used as a tool for expanding the range of current diploid crops. For example, it opens up a new way of manipulating plants' abilities to absorb nutrients and survive in nutrient-poor or toxic environments."

The saline tolerance of A. thaliana polyploids also could shed light on the survival and expansion of early plant species.

"Flowering plants emerged when much of the land mass on Earth was covered by a saline desert," Dilkes said. "It's possible that the rapid spread and multiplication of plant species was due to polyploids' ability to colonize new, highly toxic environments. The findings of this study provide a potential explanation for why we have observed polyploidy recurrently over the history of land plants."

By Natalie van Hoose