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Danforth Plant Science Center is still growing after a decade

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 26, 2008 - This Sunday, Sept. 28, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center celebrated its 10th birthday with tours, games, science demonstrations, music and, of course, cake. Opening the greenhouses to the community, the center's employees invited everyone to explore the center and see the progress made toward achieving its mission -- to improve the human condition through plant science.

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday and that means tea time at the Danforth Center. This pause in the day is steeped in an experience of the center's president.

"I was visiting an institute in England, an outstanding plant research center, and every day at 3:30, they go down to tea," said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Center and an expert in plant viruses. "My wife is English, and I said let's have a tea time."

International traditions are appropriate given the center's international staff - more than 200 employees from more than 20 countries. Striving to be the world leader in plant science, the Danforth Center has grown from an idea hatched in the late 1990s into a center for plant science that attracts top researchers from around the world.

"The biggest success thus far, I think, is attracting outstanding scientists to a brand-new institution," said Beachy. "Many of them moved from established institutions so they were taking a chance by coming here. A second big success is the partnerships that have started."

Ten years ago, Dr. William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and current chairman of the Danforth Center, began discussing collaborations between Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and Monsanto to make the St. Louis region a leader in plant science.

"The idea was that each institution would strengthen its own plant science and that we would start a new institution, which would complement and enrich what the others were doing," said Danforth. Widening its collaborations, Danforth Center partners include the University of Missouri at Columbia, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University. Staying true to its international mission, the center also works closely with researchers in India, Kenya, Uganda, China and Israel, among others.

Through its global partnerships, the Danforth Center hopes plant science can better the human condition by improving health and nutrition, protecting the environment, and bringing economic growth to St. Louis by attracting established biotechnology companies and fostering new ones.

Basic science is not enough

These ambitious goals mean that the Danforth Center researchers must do more than the basic science of understanding plants. For them, success is finding ways to apply the knowledge in the field. In the same way that advances in molecular biology can lead to better cancer therapy, advances in plant science can lead to improved agriculture.

"We are unique because we go farther down that line from basic science to applications than the universities do, but not as far as Monsanto does. We're not a company, but we make prototypes," explained Beachy. "If we have the right science, the right technology, and the right partners, including policy-makers, we're brash enough to think we might even affect people's lives. And that's pretty cool."

Beachy has specific lives in mind. In Africa, many people do not have access to foods with the nutrients necessary for a complete diet. A major research goal at the Danforth Center is engineering varieties of cassava, a staple in Africa, with more vitamins, minerals and proteins. In another project, collaborating with scientists in Israel and Pakistan, Danforth researchers are developing plants that grow better in dry climates.

Closer to home, the Danforth Center has launched the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels in an effort to produce oil from algae, a green alternative that shows potential as a cheaper source of fuel. Ideally, algae-based oil could offset its own carbon emissions through the photosynthetic action of the algae itself.

These are just a few examples of the Danforth Center's research, but they demonstrate the scope of the mission. In many cases, Center researchers have had great success in developing the science. Helping real people, however, remains a great challenge. But it keeps them going.

"I'm really pleased with where we are today," said Beachy of the Danforth Center's first 10 years. "But no one's ever truly satisfied. You might wish you could have started a company or two. You might wish you could have had more success in Africa. Nevertheless, the science has been successful."

Looking to the Future

In the next 10 years, Beachy expects to develop new visions, attract additional scientists, team up with more collaborators, and not least, foster new companies to spur economic growth.

Indeed, the Danforth Center's campus is sprouting more than plants as a new construction project erects the first building of the Bio-Research and Development Growth Park, or BRDG Park. This new facility will be a home for fledgling biotechnology companies and, it is hoped, generate new jobs.

In fact, the Danforth Center already provides support for small biotech companies in St. Louis. Derek Rapp, CEO of Divergence Inc., a genomics company specializing in parasitic infections, described the relationship his company has with the Danforth Center.

"As a small company, Divergence relies on third-party relationships and especially the Danforth Center for greenhouse facilities and the use of expensive equipment," Rapp explained. "Divergence has also benefited from scientific interchange with investigators at the Danforth Center, discussing techniques and, importantly, being co-recipients of government grants." In addition, Rapp said, the Danforth Plant Science Center "helps attract research scientists to St. Louis, making the prospect of coming to Divergence more appealing."

Beyond small businesses, Rapp explains the urgency of the work being done at the Danforth Center. "With increasing world population and the use of grains for fuel and fiber, we will need more sustainable approaches to agriculture," said Rapp. "The center is a big part of that. And its role in helping technology reach developing countries is quite noble and compelling."

Beachy also used the word noble, speaking of William Danforth's vision that the Center should benefit the region, the United States and the world. "Given the importance of food and the environment for social stability and world health," he said. "I want the St. Louis community to be proud that the Danforth Center will play such an important role in these issues worldwide."

The Danforth Plant Science Center's 10th birthday party is Sunday, Sept. 28 from 1 to 6 p.m. at 975 North Warson Road (at the corner of Warson Road and Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur). For a complete list of birthday events, click here

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare.

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