Donald Danforth Plant Science Center | St. Louis Public Radio

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Kevin Cox landed a million-dollar fellowship designed to promote diversity in science. Sept. 2019.
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Kevin Cox Jr., 28, asked a lot of questions as a child. He wanted to know how and why things came to be. 

The plant biologist, a Florissant native, figured his curiosity would take him into the medical field, but at the end of his sophomore year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, he found a new interest: microbes.

Eventually, his inquisitive nature paid off. In September, he landed a $1.4 million fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The money will fund his work as a plant science fellow at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

Danforth Center researcher Malia Gehan next to a growth chamber containing plants in September 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University are studying the long-term consequences of exposing plants to high levels of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists expect levels of the greenhouse gas to continue to rise and worsen the effects of climate change over the next several decades if people do not reduce their use of fossil fuels and other natural resources.

A soybean research plot.
Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project

A recent study from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center suggests that rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels could have opposing effects on nutrients in soybeans.

About two billion people globally suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies, according to the World Health Organization. Many communities that deal with this problem rely on soybeans and other legume crops to be their source of essential nutrients. As a recent report from the White House noted, climate change will cause temperatures to rise past productive levels for corn and soybeans.

Scientists at the Danforth Center, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the effects of raising carbon dioxide levels and temperatures by three degrees Celsius on soybean plants. They found that while carbon dioxide raised soybean yields and lowered iron and zinc levels, hotter temperatures lowered yields and raised mineral levels.

(L-R) Emily Lohse-Busch, Natalie DiNicola and Sam Fiorello share their experiences with the local STEM startup scene.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis has established itself as an attractive city for those with fresh ideas who are ready to take risks. Companies in the science, technology, engineering and math fields are now encouraging entrepreneurs to make their mark in the city’s startup scene.

Benson Hill Biosystems is an example of a local company that began small but has seen tremendous growth over the years. Natalie DiNicola, the company’s chief communications officer, told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh that St. Louis’ “healthy, vibrant ecosystem” gives it a key advantage when recruiting entrepreneurs in the STEM fields.

Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer at Danforth Plant Science Center, and Emily Lohse-Busch, executive director of Arch Grants, joined DiNicola and Marsh on Thursday’s talk show to discuss how and why STEM entrepreneurs are coming to St. Louis..

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The Denver-based Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator is expanding its program to St. Louis to support startups doing research in food, water and energy shortages.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will partner with the incubator, called IN2, to provide research labs and support for early stage startups.

IN2 was created in 2014 to support the development and commercialization of energy-related technology through early stage startups.

Ag Innovation Showcase marks 10th anniversary

Sep 10, 2018
The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

More than 400 researchers, entrepreneurs and investors are expected to attend Ag Innovation Showcase this week, the 10th year it’s been hosted by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The three-day event has been described as part research conference, part Shark Tank competition, where startups pitch the latest technology to improve crop yields that are safe for farmers, consumers and the environment.

A cornfield outside of Valmeyer, Illinois. Aug 31, 2018
Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center want to learn how a changing climate could affect the fertility of corn and other major crops.

Scientists at the Danforth Center, Stanford University and the University of Delaware have received a $3.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation to take a closer look at anthers in maize plants. Anthers — the male reproductive part of the plant — generate pollen.

provided | Danforth Plant Science Center

After two decades of building, the region’s agricultural technology cluster is poised to take off. A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit suggests it already is a global leader and a national example for other metro areas trying to establish economic growth strategies.

Plant scientist Thomas Brutnell
Brutnell Lab

This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. — The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has dismissed one of its researchers on suspicion of sexual misconduct.

The Danforth Center “has ended its relationship” with Thomas Brutnell, according to a statement released today from the Danforth Center’s President Jim Carrington. Brutnell's biography was also removed from the center’s website.

An investigation into Brutnell’s behavior began in May “upon receiving a complaint of inappropriate conduct and comments of a sexual nature” from Brutnell. Danforth officials then placed him on leave. The statement does not elaborate on the allegations against Brutnell.

Allison Miller and Jason Clay joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Over the past few years the world is producing 17 percent more food, yet one billion people go hungry.

That’s a conundrum that is the focus of a panel discussion Thursday night at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center titled, “The Future of Food in a Wealthier, Warmer World."

“It’s an interesting conundrum,” said Allison Miller, associate professor of biology at Saint Louis University. “We have a major challenge with feeding people but also conserving vibrant, healthy ecosystems.”

Ivan Baxter, a researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Liz Haswell, a biology professor at Washington University, started a podcast called Taproot last summer to talk about the challenges of doing research.
Provided by Ivan Baxter and Liz Haswell

Researchers Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter spend most their time trying to understand how plants function. But the two plant scientists sometimes step away from their microscopes and specimens to have honest conversations with their colleagues about the challenges of doing research. They recorded these dialogues into a podcast called Taproot, to represent how they’re digging for stories beyond what’s in a scientific publication.

For each episode in Taproot’s first season, Haswell, a biologist at Washington University, and Baxter, a researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, would pick a study and have a conversation about one of its authors about the difficulties involved in doing research. The issues ranged from finding work-life balance as a scientist to embracing the fact that a researcher may never achieve total certainty in what they are studying. The content, funded by the American Society of Plant Biologists, can be a bit inside baseball for a general audience, but it’s picking up in popularity among plant researchers.

Michael Okello arranges his cassava harvest, untouched by viruses.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

To prove that a new-gene editing technology could be used to alter the cassava plant, scientists in the St. Louis suburbs zeroed in on a gene used to process chlorophyll. Before long, they had petri dishes full of seedlings that were white as chalk.

The plan is to use CRISPR — a cheaper, faster way to genetically modify crops — to grow cassava plants that are resistant to common plant viruses threatening food supplies in East Africa. But regulatory agencies have yet to finalize how they will treat the new crops.

“It’s only really been available for use in plants for three, four years,” said principal investigator Nigel Taylor, of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur. “Right now, it’s an experimental tool.”

Bayer says glyphosate is a key tool for farmers as they try to control weeds and produce enough corn and other crops to help feed the world.
File Photo | Adam Allington | St. Louis Public Radio

The National Science Foundation has awarded $3.4 million to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and the University of California-Davis to study genes that promote high corn yields.

Advances in crop technology have helped boost corn yields by eightfold in the last century. But productivity of the staple crop has plateaued in recent years and that has pushed researchers to take a closer look at genes that can improve production and help feed the world's rising human population.

39 North Master Plan, Ayers Saint Gross

The public can hear more about plans for 39 North, the 600-acre plant science innovation district in Creve Coeur, on Thursday night.

The Danforth Center is hosting the discussion, which will include panelists Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz, Travis Sheridan,  CIC Venture Café Global Institute President, and Sheila Sweeney,  St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO .

Fields of sorghum at the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agricultural Center.
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

A $6.1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the Danforth Plant Science Center's research on sorghum, a staple food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. 

In several Asian and African countries, grain sorghum is essential to a person's diet. Given worldwide concerns over feeding a growing human population during a time of rising global temperatures, scientists have started paying attention to crops such as sorghum, that are highly resilient to drought and extreme heat.

A cassava micro plant, grown in a Petri dish, is kept in a Danforth unit similar to a walk-in incubator.
File photo |Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center say a $10.45 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will allow them to expand a project to develop genetically modified cassava into Nigeria.

The country is the largest cassava producer in the world, and farmers there are watching closely as two plant viruses spread across central Africa. One of them, the brown streak virus, was once confined to coastal regions in southeast Africa. Strains of cassava that are genetically modified to resist the two viruses are undergoing field trials in Uganda and Kenya.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center | provided

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are working on a device that  they hope to eventually sell to farmers.

The PheNode can monitor a variety of crop conditions, such as wind speed, humidity, soil nutrients, even air quality, and it can take pictures. Researchers and farmers could then get that information sent to their mobile devices as often as they choose.

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis developers of genetically-modified organisms have called into question a New York Times report that compares the yields of genetically modified crops between North America and Europe.

Using data from the United Nations, an investigative report published over the weekend by the Times claimed that "genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides." Agriculture in the United States and Canada has embraced GMOs, while many European countries have banned cultivation of them for many years. The article also cites a National Academy report released this year that said there is no evidence that using GM crops have accelerated yield. 

In a statement released Monday, Monsanto said that it's tough to compare yields between large geographic areas, such as the United States and Europe.

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)

Two years ago BioSTL set out to put St. Louis on Israel’s radar.

The non-profit, founded in 2001, helped develop the support system for St. Louis bioscience startups. Then, a few years ago, president and CEO Donn Rubin started hearing that Israeli startups were expanding into other U.S. cities.

Christine Anyeko, a laborer in Uganda's northern Amuru district, weeds a field of cassava, banana and beans by hand.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

NAMULONGE, Uganda — Before rows of tall, green bushes, Jude Aleu picks a cassava tuber off the ground and cracks it in half.

That shouldn’t be so easy. Healthy cassava tubers — a staple food crop in the region — can grow as thick as your upper arm. But the root in Aleu’s hands is stunted and gnarled because of a plant virus called brown streak disease. When he breaks it open, the flesh is streaked with brown and yellow, a necrosis that will render the harvest inedible.

“It’s corky,” said Aleu, a cassava safety manager for Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute. “This root you cannot eat. Even animals cannot eat it.” 

In Uganda, cassava is a staple in times of insecurity

Sep 30, 2016
A Ugandan farmer holds a cassava root for sale in his stall
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

At the Gulu Main Market in northern Uganda, there’s an entire aisle devoted to cassava vendors.

For Ugandans, the starchy tuber is more than a staple food crop. It helped people survive many years of war. A project led by the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur to develop genetically modified cassava is undergoing field trials in East Africa.

Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

On a Sunday morning in Tel Aviv the streets are bustling. It’s the first day of the work week for Israelis.

BioSTL’s man in Israel, Uri Attir, has set up meetings with five startups companies. The first is at Hebrew University’s agriculture school in Rehovot, a southern suburb of the city.

In a small university conference room, a plant science professor and his three-member team present their business. The audience consists of three members of the non-profit BioSTL and a representative from the Danforth Plant Science Center.

Provided by Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

A collaboration between the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and a textile dyes company could soon produce more eco-friendly denim clothing for consumers. 

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

As botanist Nigel Taylor moves through a greenhouse kept to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity, he checks the stems of young, potted cassava plants.

“You can see it there, OK?” Taylor said, pulling one forward. “We’re getting lesions on the stem, this plant’s quite badly infected.”

Call it manioc, tapioca or cassava — this starchy, tropical tuber feeds millions of people around the world. In many parts of East and Central Africa, farmers are experiencing declining yields of cassava due to brown streak virus, a plant disease that can render a crop inedible.

For the past decade, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur have led a project that tries another tack: genetically modifying cassava plants for disease resistance.

(courtesy Donald Danforth Plant Science Center)

Women are getting more involved in ag tech.

It’s evident at the Ag Innovation Showcase, a conference of agricultural innovators, scientists and investors that takes place annually at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

courtesy NewLeaf Symbiotics

NewLeaf Symbiotics is growing fast.

Formed in 2012, the startup has nearly 40 employees and has hired four executives in the last year.

The latest executive to come on board is Dr. Janne Kerovuo, the head of Monsanto’s Microbial Discovery Strategy since 2013. He’ll now be NewLeaf’s Vice President for Research and Discovery.

(Courtesy Ayers Saint Gross)

St. Louis has the highest concentration of plant scientists in the world. But the places where they conduct their experiments aren't necessarily the most inviting.

To attract more biotech industries and talent to the area, St. Louis County officials want to remake the areas where researchers work, especially in Creve Coeur, home to Monsanto and many promising startup companies.

That's the idea behind a proposed plant science innovation district that would connect the Danforth Science Center, BRDG Park, the Helix Center Biotech Incubator and Monsanto. The effort also aims to solidify St. Louis' reputation as a plant-science hub. But detailed plans for the area likely won't come until the end of the year.

Jerry Steiner, CEO of Arvegenix, and Toni Kutchan, Vice President for Research at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center discussed new research in the field of bioenergy on St. Louis on the Air.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

While the typical American may be considering how to use alternative fuel in the form of an electric car or investing in a “smart home” system, big industry is also looking for ways to reduce CO2 emissions through the use of alternative biofuels.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will dedicate a new wing of the facility on Friday. The expansion is called the William H. Danforth Wing, in honor of the founding chairman who helped create the plant science center in 1998.

"Everyone thinks I had a big plan when we started. You know you have to feel your way. That’s what you do in life,” Dr. William Danforth told St. Louis Public Radio. “We’re now far ahead of where I thought we would be when we started.”

Plant Science Innovation District
(Courtesy St. Louis Economic Development Partnership)

St. Louis is attracting more life science companies and startups.

Now planning is underway for a 575-acre innovation district that will be anchored by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Bio-Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park, and Helix Center Biotech Incubator.

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