The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) provided more information about a planned Plant Transformation Center. Foremost among goals for the center is finding citrus varieties that can tolerate or resist HLB disease.
UF/IFAS will utilize $2 million from an initiative by UF President Ben Sasse to create the Plant Transformation Center. The center’s objectives include:
- Develop rapid genome improvements for citrus.
- Leverage artificial intelligence to discover new gene functions to identify targets for genetic modification.
- Use clear communication and engagement with regulatory agencies to increase the transparency of the approval process.
- Infuse social science to ensure rapid adoption of new technologies among growers and the public.
- Effectively communicate with the public.
Eric Triplett, chair of the UF/IFAS Microbiology and Cell Science Department, founded the center as a cornerstone to get HLB-tolerant cultivars to growers faster.
“The center will allow us to much more effectively employ biotechnology tools to increase the speed and accuracy of our plant breeding,” Scott Angle, UF’s interim provost and UF/IFAS vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said. For the past three months, Angle has been meeting with citrus industry leaders to garner support and input on goals for the center.
“We’ll start with citrus because that is a commodity in crisis,” Angle added. “But I see the center’s portfolio rapidly expanding to include other crops in which Florida is the number one producer nationally as well as crops where we could become a national or international leader … if we can develop the right varieties for Florida production.”
Charlie Messina, director of the center and a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences, said it will take scientists from many disciplines to bring solutions to stakeholders. He said the center “creates a nexus where state-of-the-art capabilities will enable transdisciplinary UF scientists, breeders and international partners to develop tools and create cultivars.”
Triplett is working with Messina to hire two faculty in the immediate future. They will work both in Gainesville and at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.
Triplett is already working with fellow UF/IFAS microbiologist Zhonglin Mou to commercialize Mou’s HLB-tolerant, transgenic line of citrus. “It became clear early on that there was a broad consensus around Zhonglin’s suggestion that we form a crop transformation center,” Triplett said.
The $2 million covers two years of research and facilities upgrades. In that time, UF/IFAS staff will build much of the infrastructure needed for the center, including greenhouses, growth chambers, supplies and personnel. Scientists will simultaneously conduct research.
Many UF/IFAS scientists have already expressed interest in working with the Plant Transformation Center, including plant breeders, geneticists, microbiologists, crop physiologists, agronomists and entomologists.
“Any UF scientist interested in making plant genome alterations is welcome to work with the center,” Triplett said. “Over time, the services of the center may be offered to scientists outside of UF.”
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