MSU: Bleeding and Growing Green
The award-winning movie Avatar
ends as creeping plant tendrils gently wrap around the near-dead hero on the fictional planet of Pandora. Theatergoers exit knowing the plants will once again heal a fallen warrior and all will be well.
It’s as if the movie’s writers and Michigan State University
’s (MSU) faculty had a mind meld.
Plants were key to MSU’s founding as a land grant college 155 years ago, and they are integral to it today as it contributes to a new economy based on renewable resources.
The university’s biotechnology programs have mushroomed, no pun intended. In May, the school will break ground on a four-story, $40 million Plant Sciences Buildin
g that will connect the Plant and Soil Science Building with the Plant Biology Building
In March, MSU created the BioEconomy Network
to centralize the university’s biotech efforts and help faculty to keep track of everything that's happening.
Because beyond the test tube and petri-dish types of research, there has also been tremendous growth in the areas of policy, economic analysis and social interpretation regarding the bio-economy, says Doug Gage, network director.
“The biology faculty may not be aware of carbon credit analysis going on in the economics department,” says Gage by way of example. “We need to connect it all.”
The re-organization allows the university to assist the state of Michigan in getting where it wants to be in the bio-economy while educating the next generation of students, Gage says.
“Our goal is to raise MSU’s image in the plant sciences—to raise the stakes as a change-agent to boost the Green Economy in Michigan.”Fuel
Renewable fuels are high on the agenda of elected leaders, says Steve Pueppke, director of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station
(MAES), part of the university. In addition to the fuel, retro-fitted auto machine shops can be used to build components of machines or factories that make green economy equipment, like wind turbines or solar panels.
Other projects are also on the docket. Industrial waste sites, known as brownfields, are being tested for their potential in growing soybeans, corn, canola and switchgrass that might then be converted to biodiesel or ethanol products. Other researchers are working on genetically engineering corn varieties to produce the enzymes needed to break down cellulose and hemi-cellulose into simple sugars, allowing for more cost-effective production of ethanol.
The university is also working on obtaining grants to fund this research. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy
granted MSU, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin
, a $50 million , five-year project for its Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center
to develop ethanol. The grant’s renewal for five more years is expected next year. Food
Finding new ways to fuel the world is important, but Pueppke stays awake at night worrying about ways to fuel people. The professor has devoted his life to tinkering with food production through plant biology, as have many others. Even so, people in the under developed parts of the world are dying of malnutrition, and in America people are eating too much of the wrong kinds of food.
Pueppke’s $115 million Agricultural Experiment Station— not one place, as it sounds, but rather 15 locations around the state—guides faculty who are carrying out work ranging from reducing fungal diseases in cherries to developing a no-salt-added ketchup.
He says that 90 percent of the university’s biotechnology work is related to food, and a great deal of that is related to plants.
Two of the experiment stations are located in the Capital region. Researchers at the Muck Soils Research Farm
in Laingsburg examine crops—like carrots and celery—and soils. Those at the East Lansing Field Research Facilities research fields and horticulture.
With the university’s organizational changes, MAES will add water science and climate change to its priorities and seek additional funding opportunities.BioEconomy Network
Once Pueppke’s MAES scientists develop a marketable product, they might take it to MSU Technologies
, located across Grand River Avenue from the campus, to get help with licensing and patents.
MSU holds hundreds of patents. The most lucrative was for Cisplatin
, an anti-cancer drug that brought in tens of millions of dollars before the patent expired. The university has even licensed a number of plant varieties, including a strain of blueberries.
As they focus on specific markets, the scientists might go next door to MSU Business-CONNECT
to learn about contracts, corporate responsibility and building relationships with other countries.
And then they could go to The Product Center
on campus to get a counselor to guide the development of a commercial operation—the center already has started more than 100 operations, including developing a cooperative of fishermen selling whitefish.
But glitches can occur in the ramp-up to marketable quantities.
MSU has an answer for that, too. It’s the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, now called MBI International
, located in a Lansing industrial park south of the campus, on Collins Road. Owned by the MSU Foundation
, the company’s laboratories specialize in taking science from a beaker to a vat to economically marketable quantities.Bio-Beyond
MSU has long reached beyond U. S. borders. After all, its study abroad program is the largest in the country. The university’s global expertise was recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
when it granted $10.4 million to MSU in November for research into food security in Africa.
Soon, Pueppke will join others leaving soon for Senegal
in West Africa to explore biofuel production there. “Our agricultural expertise fits with their fuel system,” Pueppke says. MSU has 30 to 40 years of experience working in Africa.
“We have a tacit knowledge of how things work there, the sensitivities and opportunities,” says Puepkke. “That’s a needy part of the world with huge potential.”
Meanwhile, President Lou Anna Simon, rightfully proud of the university’s land grant commitment to the environment, says it’s time to take the next step. She has pledged to make MSU a world grant institution, committing it to nurturing global sustainability.
Pueppke points to a Canadian flag hanging in his office. Environmental problems never stop at political borders, he says.
“It’s incumbent on us all to help each other.”To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Gretchen Cochran is a freelance writer specializing in the Capital region. She tries gardening from time to time and is presently attempting to master growing hollyhocks beside her Victorian home.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Small rutabaga plants used to study increasing oil production
Biomass Conversion Research Lab work
Research on rutabagas in MSU's greenhouses
Plant Sciences research
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie