Clemson University’s Advanced Plant Technology Program — headed by geneticist Stephen Kresovich and comprised of a multifaceted team of renowned scientists — continues to stretch the limits of agricultural research in genetics, bioinformatics, computational biology and robotics.

The APT Program was formed in 2012 to help South Carolina meet the goals established by the 50 by 20 plan, a 10-year strategic concept aimed at increasing the economic impact of agribusiness in South Carolina to $50 billion by 2020. Since its inception, the APT program has been making its mark on South Carolina’s crop production through the development of new and improved varieties. Current crops of interest include cotton, peaches, peanuts, sorghum and soybeans.

At a planning meeting at the Florence Civic Center during the recent S.C. Agribiz and Farm Expo, APT Program members discussed a variety of topics aimed at further defining and organizing both their short- and long-term objectives. Though the APT Program has been steadily growing in quality and scope since its inception, the best is yet to come. More than a dozen research projects are in various stages of development.

“The primary goal of the Advanced Plant Technology Program is to build bridges and allow a diverse group of talented people to work together and make each other better,” said Kresovich, Coker Chair of Genetics and director of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics. “Our intent is to construct a network across South Carolina, find more opportunities for funding and do the best we can to strengthen research programs around the state. We’re also committed to working with the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service and taking advantage of the expertise and training Clemson’s agents have to offer. It’s vitally important for people around the state to know what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.”

Thomas Dobbins, director of Clemson Extension, is working closely with the APT Program to form a collaboration between scientists and Extension agents that will further assist and educate the constituents of South Carolina.

“I want to make sure that our agents are trained to understand the advanced scientific work that the APT Program is doing so that they can explain it to their stakeholders,” said Dobbins, who directs a statewide network of Extension agents representing all 46 South Carolina counties. “So as we move along with this great adventure, the APT Program will be bringing in and training some of our agents so that they can spread the word as effectively as possible.”

During the meeting, several topics of discussion included:

  • Pee Dee Research and Education Center (REC) facility improvements
  • Personnel and recruitments
  • Budget priorities
  • Communication and educational priorities
  • A proposal for a certificate program in Translational Genomics

Though the APT Program is housed primarily at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center near Florence, its more than 20 members are also based at the Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston; the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville; Musser Fruit Research Farm in Seneca,;the USDA-ARS Coastal Plains Soil, Water, and Plant Conservation Research Center in Florence; and the main Clemson campus.

The Pitner Center, which is the main building at Pee Dee REC, is in the process of a $7 million renovation in support of the APT Program. The interior of the Pitner Center has been gutted, transforming a slew of small laboratories into several expansive ones. Renovation is expected to be completed by the end of September 2016. Clemson University hopes to receive $2.5 million from the South Carolina Legislature that will help expand its research and outreach programs even further.

“The internal demolition of the Pitner Center is almost finished,” Pee Dee REC director Matt Smith said. “Now it’s time for the reconstruction to begin. Instead of having 20 or 30 small labs, we’re going to have four multi-scientist labs that will extend all the way to the outside walls. They will be state-of-the art facilities.”

One of the more publicized research projects currently being undertaken by the APT Program is headed by Kresovich. Clemson University’s Institute of Translational Genomics has been awarded $6 million by Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy as one of six Transportation Energy Resources for Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) projects totaling $30 million that are seeking to accelerate the development of sustainable energy crops for the production of renewable transportation fuels.

“It’s a really nice opportunity to engage the actual genetics behind sorghum and the breeding program, but also to tie in rapid phenotyping using a combination of both unmanned aerial and ground vehicles,” said Barry Flinn, program manager of the TERRA project and an APT Program member. “We are enjoying a good collaboration with the ground vehicle folks at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and the aerial vehicle team at Near Earth Autonomy.”

Other ongoing projects associated with the APT Program include breeding peaches for better fruit quality and increased disease resistance, studying and sequencing genes responsible for nodule formation in legumes, expanding the genetic diversity of cotton while improving fiber quality and exploring the mechanisms by which weedy species develop resistance to herbicides.

In addition to Kresovich, Smith and Flinn, APT Program members include John Mueller, director of the Edisto REC; Chris Ray, director of the Clemson University Experiment Station; Chris Saski, director of the Clemson University Genomics Institute; Paula Agudelo, nematologist; Daniel Anco, peanut specialist; William Bridges, statistical genetics; Todd Campbell, USDA cotton geneticist; Elizabeth Cooper, population genetics; Ben Fallen, soybean breeder; Alex Feltus, bioinformatics; Julia Frugoli, legume genetics; Ksenija Gasic, peach breeder; Jeremy Greene, entomologist; David Gunter, feed grain science; Amy Lawton-Rauh, population genetics; Haiying Liang, woody plant genomics; Hong Luo, plant stress; Joe Mari Maja, research sensor engineer; Bruce Martin, turfgrass pathologist; Bradley Rauh, geneticist; Francis Reay-Jones, entomologist; Greg Reighard, fruit tree genetics; Guido Schnabel, fruit pathologist; Rajandeep Sekhon, plant genomics; Emerson Shipe, plant breeder; Victoria Artigliere, administrative services; and Jonathan Windham, program representative.

“We are public servants and want to highlight our capabilities,” Kresovich said. “There are a lot of great programs going on. But we need to be strategic about how we combine our efforts to make the best use of all of the various talents and expertise we have on board. We are stronger as a group than as individuals.”