The Environmental Biotechnology Initiative at URI
Patrick Logan, Director
R.I. Agriculture Experiment Station
In December 1997, faculty
from URI marine and environmental science departments met to formally endorse
a new idea for the University. Although some might say that academicians rarely
agree on anything, these 50 faculty unanimously endorsed a major expansion of
its programs in environmental biotechnology, called the Environmental Biotechnology
Biotechnology in the context of this initiative is defined as the ability of scientists to understand and use genes in new ways. The media often reports on medical biotechnology. URI's strengths in biology including marine, environmental, and agricultural sciences make it particularly well suited for development of a biotechnology initiative with a focus other than medicine.
EBI will emphasize the study of nature and will support new ways to use genes to better understand plants, animals, and the ecosystems where they live. Another emphasis will be new gene-governed processes that can be used to create products with practical uses in industry, agriculture, environmental protection and remediation, and human and veterinary medicine.
Applications of biotechnology in the environmental sciences are being discovered at an astounding ratečthere are myriad ways that biotechnology can be applied. In studies of population genetics, a field very important to global conservation efforts, new technologies are being used to study individual genes or proteins and to detect subtle evolutionary patterns in microbes, plants, and animals. For life on a resource-limited planet, these same technologies offer strong hopes for domesticated crops and animals, on which we depend for food and fiber. Biotechnology can help make better use of nutrients and water and increase resistance to insects, disease, and environmental stress.
EBI will focus on four areas to enhance the educational, training, and research missions of the biological and environmental sciences at URI. EBI will emphasize developing centralized state-of-the-art laboratories to address common needs. The four areas of technology in a central facility include:
Genomics. Isolating and identifying elements of genetic material and characterizing their functions.
Transgenics & Cell Culture. Moving genes from one organism into another, modifying the latter in organisms such as microbes, plants, and animals (fish, insects, and livestock).
Imaging. Examining the sites within cells that show the expression of new genes or proteins using electron or light microscopy and using sophisticated computer graphics programs to construct two-dimensional and three-dimensional models of these expressions at near macromolecular levels.
Informatics. Tracking gene sequences, processing volumes of digital information and extensive DNA and protein databases.
As a Land Grant University, URI has a responsibility to apply environmental, agricultural, and natural resources research to practical problems. As a Sea Grant institution, it has a mandate for stewardship of marine resources. EBI will provide training facilities for natural resource managers in these technologies.
Health and agriculture make up 15 percent of the nation's economy: Biotechnology affects both areas. EBI will modernize the research capabilities of URI faculty and enhance their ability to conduct cutting-edge research. This will foster opportunities for University-industry collaborations in general biotechnology (methodologies), aquacultural pathology (disease diagnosis, vaccines, and stock improvement), and horticulture (insect and disease resistance, enhancement of quality and quantity of yield). There will be new opportunities for alliances in agronomy (e.g., improved efficiency of water and nutrients), food safety (pathogen recognition and quality analysis), and environmental management (conservation of endangered species, detection of pollution).
EBI provides a means for industry and academic scientists to exchange ideas, to share methods and equipment, and to collaborate in training the next generation of scientists and technicians at URI. Training workshops will allow scientists to keep abreast of the latest technologies for cell culture and fermentation, polymerase chain reaction, cloning and recombinant DNA techniques, and emerging tools for diagnosing environmental pathogens that threaten food and drinking water.
EBI will provide students access to specialized training facilities, including many in the centralized research and outreach laboratories, and teachers of non-biology majors with a general understanding of concepts and applications of biotechnology. More importantly, it will provide an opportunity for environmental and biology students to undertake research early in their academic careers, something usually reserved for graduate students. New course offerings may also be available, especially in the core areas of genomics, transgenics, imaging, and informatics.
EBI will accelerate active research programs and integrate them into the undergraduate curriculum. Ranger Hall, the proposed site of centralized laboratories and instructional facilities, is a magnificent granite building on URI's main campus. Nearly 90 years old, Ranger was scheduled for major renovation, with funds provided by a 1996 state bond issue. A study is underway to look at the feasibility of redirecting the renovation to accommodate the new programs of the Initiative. The Champlin Foundation and URI have approved funding to renovate and equip two satellite labs for plant, animal, and microbial biotech curricula. Even in its early stages, the Initiative has led to development of on-campus collaboration with AgriBioTech, the world's largest research and development biotech company specializing in forages and cool-season grasses.
This is one of the most exciting developments shaping the future of URI. These early successes signal promise as EBI grows from an idea to reality.
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