N.C. program immerses students in science
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.
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.”
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.