URI launches environmental biotechnology initiative

KINGSTON, R.I. — January 6, 1999 –There’s a reason why the grass looks greener at the University of Rhode Island; it’s colored by the University’s international prominence in turf research. URI’s turf reputation was one of two deciding factors that led AgriBioTech (ABT), the world’s largest forage and cool season turf grass seed company, to open a molecular biology and transformation laboratory in association with URI. The University’s new Environmental Biotechnology Initiative was the second reason the publicly traded (NASDAQ ABTX) company, headquartered in Nevada, chose to integrate its programs with URI. The new initiative involves curricular changes, laboratory enhancements, and industry collaborations. Environmental sciences are being transformed by new technologies that examine and manipulate the genetic makeup of plants, animals, and microbes. The application of this technology is the emerging field called biotechnology. “Biotechnology techniques and tools are at the heart of modern life sciences,” said Dr. Margaret Leinen, dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences and vice provost for Marine Programs who oversees the initiative. Throughout URI, many scientists and their students in such diverse fields as microbiology, fish, animal, and veterinary science, plant science, biology, oceanography, and chemical engineering fields are using biotechnology tools and techniques to seek answers for many of society’s pressing problems. Research areas include: new ways to deal with life-threatening diseases carried by ticks. conservation of species like the New England cottontail rabbit. genetic improvement of plants and species with agricultural importance (plants, fin fish and shellfish, silkworm). safer and more nutritional foods through the reduction or elimination of pesticides. detection and removal of toxins or pathogens from foods. “Firms working in life sciences, including biotech firms, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and environmental firms are projecting substantial increases in their work force during the next decades, “said Leinen. “For example, Pfizer Corp.’s research campus in nearby Groton, Conn. expects to fill more than 500 research technicians positions over the next five years. “Our initiative will give URI students the skills to compete for these high-paying jobs. An undergraduate skilled in biotechnology techniques could easily earn $40,000 upon graduation.” In its initiative, URI plans curriculum changes that will allow students in all of the life sciences to receive hands-on training using equipment in state-of-the art biotechnology laboratories. Some of these laboratory enhancements have already been funded by the Champlin Foundations. The plan is to house the highest tech equipment in Ranger Hall and create multiple-use labs in that building for a variety of classes. A $3.6-million top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the building was approved by voters in a 1996 bond referendum. Some of the additional $1-million in private donations required to complete the project has already been raised. The initiative is also expected to attract other industry-university collaborations. In the ABT-URI agreement, ABT is leasing space at URI’s food science facility in West Kingston (two labs and two offices.) The University is interested in the partnership because of the synergies of research projects and undergraduate and graduate students internships. Dr. Albert Kausch, a nationally-known researcher employed by ABT, has collaborated on research projects with URI faculty in the past and plans to continue these efforts. In addition, ABT will allow Kausch to teach a course this year at URI in his area of specialization at no expense to the University. Kausch has authored important work on molecular biology and plant transformation and is the author or co-author of 12 patents. URI’s turf grass research is the oldest, continuous program in the country and strives to enhance the resistance of grass to drought, insects, and disease and thereby reduce the impact on the environment by using less fertilizer, water, or pesticides. Turf grass faculty at URI first identified what are now common turf grass diseases. The faculty receive calls from around the world for advice. URI’s turf program has developed and released grass seeds including Providence Creeping Bent Grass SR119, which took top prize in the National Turf Grass Federation’s evaluation. Using the tools of biotechnology, it is possible to isolate genes that could enhance turf’s resistance to drought, insects, and disease. “I expect our environmental initiative will attract students, grants, and other companies to the state, ” said Leinen. “The initiative keeps URI in the forefront of environmental studies while attacting high technology industrial development to the state