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B-List: Six things to know about St. Louis' plant science community

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - There’s an old saying that you learn something new everyday. And for this writer, that’s definitely true after working for a few weeks on a series checking the pulse of St. Louis’ plant sciences community.

To tell the truth, I had very little first-hand knowledge about the plant sciences before I was dispatched to talk to local and national leaders in the field. Since I received a C+ in basic college geology, getting a sense of how plant science research worked in the St. Louis region seemed like a herculean effort.

But after extensive interviews with plant science enthusiasts and experts, the conclusion is fairly self-evident.

St. Louis’ collection of commercial companies, higher education institutions and research centers made the region a magnet for the field of plant science research. Big institutions such as Monsanto, Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have assisted mightily to bolstering St. Louis' reputation in the field.

While there are plenty of facts, figures, numbers and observation contained within the three-part Beacon series, here are a few takeaways, forgive the pun, from digging into St. Louis’ plant science community:

1. According to several people interviewed for the series, 70 percent of the nation’s agricultural production occurs within 500 miles of St. Louis: That statistic alone may explain the interest in plant sciences within St. Louis. It likely helps that St. Louis relatively close to state universities with a history in agricultural education, such as the University of Missouri, the University of Illinois and Purdue University.

2. The St. Louis region, according to the Danforth Center, has the largest collection of individuals with Ph.Ds in plant sciences in the world: Many of the scientists work at Monsanto or Washington University, but some may be involved in running smaller, start-up companies that have set up shop in the region.

3. Some other "hubs" for plant science research include Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, numerous cities in Texas and various places in California: Research Triangle Park was usually cited as a particularly large hub for plant science research, since some of the world’s biggest agribusiness companies have branches there. San Diego and College Station are also consider major plant science centers, as well.

4.David Stern of Cornell’s Boyce Thompson Institute cites former Sen. Kit Bond as a major figure in getting federal money for plant science research: During his interview with the Beacon, Stern – a board member for the American Society of Plant Biologists – noted that the former Republican lawmaker was key launching a National Science Foundation initiative for plant genomics, which he said made a “big splash” within the plant sciences field. He went onto say that “the plant community now is wondering who’s going to take over his role in Congress.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bond – whose name has been attached to a nearly endless list of stuff throughout the Show Me State – has a wing named in his honor at the Danforth Center. Bond helped obtain federal funds for the facility's operations.

5. The Danforth Center’s Ag Innovation Showcase is considered a major event within the plant sciences community: This year’s gathering – which occurred earlier in September – attracted well over 300 people from 16 different countries. As David Baugher noted in his Beacon article, the event has generated $96 million in post-showcase investment since it began a few years ago.

6. St. Louis’ status as a plant science hub appears to be on a safe trajectory: There are, as noted in last week's concluding article for the series, challenges for commercial and institutional plant science research in St. Louis. Venture capital funding has been more difficult to come by for plant science companies than other industries. There’s also the ongoing task of recruiting and retaining professionals – including immigrants.

But with major expansions on the horizon for Monsanto and the Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis’ designation as a plant science hub doesn’t seem to be in danger of dissipating. In fact, its current reputation is being used as a selling point to get food giant ADM to move to the region.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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