University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Agricultural advanced technology center to identify genes of plants,
animals, microorganisms

     With the arrival of gene-shifting technologies two decades
ago, agricultural scientists enthusiastically forecasted another
green revolution-genetically engineered plants that would be
disease-resistant, healthier to eat, require less pesticides and
produce larger yields.
     Today, many of these predictions are being realized. More
nutritious corn and soybeans with higher oil content have been
developed. Colored cotton that doesn't have to be dyed is now
grown. And, some plants have been genetically altered to tolerate
specific herbicides or to attack specific insect pests without
harming other beneficial bugs and animals.
     Consumers now benefit from fruits with a longer shelf life,
potatoes that resist bruising and tomatoes that sustain less
damage in freezing temperatures.
     And, the environment also stands to gain from new
genetically engineered products. Scientists in Georgia recently
announced that they have designed a gene that, when inserted in
test plants, will remove heavy metal pollutants from the soil.
     The University of Delaware's College of Agricultural
Sciences is entering this brave new world of agriculture by
creating what is thought to be the largest gene sequencing
facility in the U.S. dedicated to agriculturally important
plants, animals and microorganisms. In cooperation with industry
partners, including the DuPont Co., Intervet and Mallinckrodt
Veterinary, and other Delaware academic institutions, the
Delaware  Agricultural Biotechnology Center will focus on gene
discovery in crop plants, their pathogens and on poultry viruses.
     The center was one of three advanced technology centers
approved by the General Assembly and announced by Gov. Thomas
Carper Aug. 5.
     "The opportunity for major breakthroughs in agricultural
production will come from biotechnology," says John Nye, dean of
the college. "By identifying the expressed [active] genes in food
crops, we can produce higher yields and reduce our dependency on
chemicals for pest control."
     Biotechnology-in which scientists transfer characteristics
from one organism to another unrelated organism-involves the
identification of desirable genes found in the chromosomes of a
plant or animal. Genes are composed of a material known as DNA,
and the once time-consuming process of determining the order of
DNA subunits in specific genes has now been speeded up by
automatic sequencers.
     "Although traditional genetics works, cross breeding for a
better variety was incredibly time-consuming," says Nye. "Plus,
we didn't really understand the genome. Now, we can look at a 
specific gene for a desired characteristic, such as resistance 
to a particular disease or the ability to withstand high soil 
salinity. We can identify exactly the gene we are interested 
in, extract it, clone it and insert it into another plant."
     Nonetheless, deciphering the genetic makeup of important
crop plants remains a formidable task. Along with its first
industrial partner, the DuPont Co.'s Agricultural Products
Division, the center will focus initially on analyzing the
expressed genes of corn and soybeans and creating computer
databases of specific cloned sequences. Over the next four years,
the partners expect to sequence more than 1 million expressed
genes in plants and poultry viruses.
     "DuPont has assembled a group of highly qualified molecular
biologists, DNA sequencing specialists and computer programmers
along with 24 state-of-the art sequencers for an advanced
technology center at Delaware Technology Park in Newark," says
Nye. "We have an opportunity to develop a synergistic
relationship with these world-class molecular biologists and, in
doing so, strengthen molecular biology across the campus."
     A major benefit of the center to the University is
intellectual stimulation, Nye says, and the new center will offer
student training and regular seminars. Student interns will have
the opportunity to work as lab technicians, and there will be an
opportunity for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.
     Closer ties with Delaware State University and Delaware
Technical and Community College and for student workers there
also are part of the  center.
     The College of Agricultural Sciences, which already has a
world-class program in developing vaccines for poultry diseases,
now has a new biotechnology laboratory under construction.
Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the poultry
industry, the state and the University, this 16,000 square-foot
lab will be a state-of-the-art facility to study poultry diseases
at the highest level of bio-containment.
     Nye says that Delmarva poultry industries and vaccine
manufacturers also will benefit from the proposed biotechnology
research center, as the molecular biology technologies also are
important tools in understanding poultry viruses.
     The developed database of genetic information will be a
highly valued intellectual property attractive to agricultural
biotechnology industries, Nye says. He envisions future business
ventures  growing out of such information, with the University
and industry partners sharing the value of the genetic
     The University has experience dealing with such intellectual
property issues, he says, through the Delaware Research
Partnership Program. Over the past five years, faculty in the UD
College of Agricultural Sciences alone have received almost $2.5
million through that program and their projects have supported
agricultural industries in Delaware. "The center will provide
even greater incentives to attract new industries and support
existing ones," Nye says.