AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a more than $1 million donation of a unique plant cell library and related equipment from the Monsanto Company. The library contains tissues and cells from 3,500 plant species and is considered to be one of the largest plant cell collections in the world. It will be used by university researchers and their industry partners.
“The donation will provide researchers with a powerful new tool for ongoing research, new grant-funded projects and collaboration between campus scientists and industry,” says James D. Capistran, executive director of the UMass Innovation Institute. The potential applications of the plant products from this collection include applications in human health, oils, resins, tannins, natural rubber, gums, waxes, dyes, flavors, fragrances and applications in agriculture.
Michael F. Malone, UMass Amherst’s vice chancellor for research and engagement, says, “This is a terrific opportunity that aligns UMass scientific and engineering strengths with societal needs and industry interests. We’re looking forward to the collaboration and outcomes this donation will drive between world-class academic researchers and world-class corporate partners.”
“Monsanto is pleased to contribute this plant cell library and associated know-how to UMass Amherst,” says Monsanto’s CTO Robert Fraley. “We hope the library will help foster public-private research and collaboration that will lead to the discovery of new innovations.”
“Researchers at UMass Amherst have a great deal of expertise in plant cell biology and genomics,” Capistran says. “This opens up numerous research opportunities, will help us pursue new academic research grants and will help expand our collaborations with industry.”
Included in the donation is the library of cells and tissues, samples from research that has been conducted on portions of the collection, equipment to house and maintain the library and access to an extensive database on the history of the collection. The research team will work with the UMass Amherst Library to curate the database to enable broad accessibility.
Steve Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, says the acquisition of the plant cell library is more than just a good scientific and business relationship. “Despite our knowledge of the extraordinary potential of plant natural products, only a small fraction of plant species has been examined,” he says. “This unique collection of 3,500 cultured plant species, spanning 85 percent of plant taxonomic orders from around the world, is an invaluable source of novel natural products. This collection affords the opportunity not only to extract compounds for medical and industrial testing, but also the ability to use genomics and molecular biology to uncover the underlying metabolic pathways,” Goodwin says.
The cell library and related equipment will be housed in the new Life Science Laboratories with adjacent laboratory and office spaces for the research teams. Funding to support operating costs for the first two years is coming from a $150,000 grant from the UMass President’s Office science and technology fund and from the College of Natural Sciences and the vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass Amherst.
“It is well known that plants are a great source for chemical diversity that continues to fuel innovation from drug discovery to consumer products. This technology is unique in that it combines the breadth of the library with a novel approach that sustainably taps into the diversity of natural compounds,” says Sekhar Boddupalli, Monsanto Consumer R&D lead. He also says Monsanto actively promotes public research and this is another example that can further discovery and solutions that benefits the industry.
Susan C. Roberts, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Institute for Cellular Engineering at UMass Amherst, says using the plant cell library can promote a range of research inquiries with applications in pharmaceutical sciences, nutraceuticals, materials, biofuels and drug delivery. “The power of this collection is tremendous. Because we are working with live cultures as opposed to plant samples, we can expose the cells to different conditions that will induce completely novel products,” Roberts says. “In addition, we can use our genomics expertise to identify new genes with new catalytic functions. Large-scale production of complex natural products is often an issue due to low yields in nature. The discovery of new genes and metabolic pathways will facilitate engineering and synthetic biology efforts in both plants and microbes, leading to optimized bioprocesses for natural product supply.”
Elizabeth Vierling, Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, says “the library also provides the opportunity to develop authentic research experiences for undergraduate students in biology, biochemistry, chemistry and engineering. Students can be engaged in extracting and characterizing the activity of natural plant compounds with the potential of obtaining publishable or even patentable results.”
University and company officials state that the collection of materials does not contain any genetically modified organisms, but rather comprises natural plant materials from around the world.