N.C. program immerses students in science

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An unprecedented partnership of academic and industry organizations at the North Carolina Research Campus has launched a groundbreaking $1.5 million program to engage college students from across the state in a first-of-its-kind education and research endeavor.

Called the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP), the program teams up university scientists, industry leaders and college students who together will explore plant pathways to answer why and how plants, like fruits and vegetables, benefit human health. P2EP aims to foster scientific discoveries, provide educational opportunities and create a vast knowledge base of plant pathways research.

The multi-institutional project is fueled by academic partners at the N.C. Research Campus, including N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division and UNC General Administration, along with industry leaders from the David H. Murdock Research Institute, Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, General Mills and the N.C. Research Campus.

“The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project is a prime example of the power of the N.C. Research Campus,” said Michael Todd, executive director of the N.C. Research Campus. “The cutting-edge research and educational opportunities are a terrific value for the UNC system and private campus partners, and demonstrates a novel, collaborative research model that will improve human health.”

The program kicks off with 29 students, comprised of graduate students and undergraduate interns representing 10 N.C. colleges and universities. Project leaders have developed a unique model; placing Ph.D. candidates in charge of six lab teams with undergrads divvied up as research staff.

Each of the six student labs conducts functional genome sequence assembly in tandem with plant pathways research for specific food crops, like blueberries, broccoli, oats and strawberries. The labs also mine data that will generate a research knowledge base. Project leaders and faculty from the partnering organizations collaborate with the lab teams and oversee the progress.

UNC General Administration provided support to launch the effort, along with Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation, Duke Energy Foundation, Turner Construction and educational institutions including Catawba College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

“This project represents the way big science can solve big problems for society – collaborations across disciplines involving industry and academia,” said Dr. Chris Brown, vice president for research and graduate education with the University of North Carolina General Administration. “We look forward to the success of P2EP and other projects like it at the N.C. Research Campus.”

P2EP launched with an initial budget of $1.5 million from partner donations and in-kind contributions. Project leaders say the program will operate through the 2017 fiscal year (June 30, 2017), with plans to expand and extend it indefinitely.

The project addresses an overarching theme of plant pathways, which are series of chemical reactions in plants that help them to make the compounds they need to survive and adapt to environmental stressors such as disease or climate change. Each chemical reaction forms a part of a “pathway” to the formation of a specific compound, because it’s the natural path a molecule takes when changing from one form to another.

Ultimately, the pathway leads to a new product like an amino acid, phytochemical or a type of fiber. Often having been created to help a plant survive its own health risks, these newly formed compounds are often beneficial to human health when consumed.

Scientific Discovery
Plant pathways are elaborate and complex. A primary goal of the P2EP program is to identify and map plant pathways in food crops – that is, decode the steps taken to produce the beneficial compounds – and better understand how they function.

“By answering the questions of how, why and what healthy compounds does a plant produce, we’ll be able to advance scientific research, create opportunities for industry and consumers, and ultimately enhance human health,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Plants for Human Health Institute director and part of the P2EP leadership team.

“Consumers love hearing about science, and being involved in this program gives us, as a food company, the opportunity to communicate to them just what we can accomplish with the new technologies available at the NCRC,” added Dr. Nicholas Gillitt, director of nutrition research for Dole Food Company and part of the P2EP leadership team.

Dr. Eric Jackson, principal scientist with General Mills and part of the P2EP leadership team, coordinates the genetic mapping, sequencing and annotation portion of the project and foresees better crops and technology as a result of the effort.

“This project will give us the tools to create better varieties of blueberries, strawberries, oats, broccoli and other crops we focus on down the road,” said Jackson. “Once we map the pathways, we can start developing practical, applied technologies to get the science to the table and benefit human health.”

Educational Opportunity
For eight weeks each summer, the program immerses select science students from N.C. colleges and universities with industry and academic experts at the Kannapolis campus to address real-world human health and agricultural research questions. Ph.D. candidates are involved year-round, while undergrads come on board as lab staff for the summers.

With its dynamic composition of academic and industry partners, in addition to state-of-the-art scientific facilities and instrumentation, the program offers opportunities to students from institutions that may not otherwise be able to provide these resources. As such, P2EP is about developing students as well as advancing science, according to Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development at the N.C. Research Campus and part of the P2EP leadership team.

“We’re cultivating the scientists of tomorrow,” said Higgs. “We’re helping participants gain research experience in a multidisciplinary, collaborative environment – not just ordinary office life, but one-of-a-kind scientific research opportunities – which better prepares the students for successful careers.”

Knowledge Base
“This project is already producing terabytes of data and requires bioinformatics expertise and high performance computing to do the analysis that will lead to new and exciting discoveries,” said Dr. Cory Brouwer, director of UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Research Services Division and part of the P2EP leadership team. “Many people still ask what bioinformatics is, but essentially it’s the use of computers to help solve biological problems.”

The program will utilize a knowledge base to organize and analyze the extensive amounts of data the program will generate.

When queried, a traditional web search engine – like Google or Yahoo! – provides a list of sources. A knowledge base goes a step further by providing direct answers, such as established plant pathways data versus websites that may or may not provide the desired information. But generating a knowledge base dedicated to plant pathways research from around the world first requires compiling the data to populate it, said Brouwer, who is coordinating this portion of the program.

“A problem for researchers today is that they’re having to do generic web searches to compile existing research literature, which can take weeks,” said Brouwer. “Our goal is to assemble plant pathways research in a knowledge base so researchers can find information quickly and focus on the science. With the P2EP program, we’re concentrating the expertise and resources that already exist at the N.C. Research Campus, along with a terrific crop of science students, to gather and organize the data.”

“The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project is the type of collaborative effort that the N.C. Research Campus was built to cultivate,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Plants for Human Health Institute director and part of the P2EP leadership team. “This is a golden opportunity; we’re tackling a series of questions that have been of great importance throughout the world since the beginning of plant sciences.”

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