Research Campus to Super-Charge Fruits, Vegetables
Through millennia of evolution, plants have developed chemical compounds to protect themselves from predators and other threats. When the plants are eaten, these biologically active compounds interact with receptors in the human body to protect against pathogens and physiological stresses. Using some of the most advanced technology in the world, NC State researchers at the Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) are more able than ever to tap these compounds to prevent disease and improve human health.
“The same compounds that protect plants have therapeutic benefits for humans.”
PHHI, which formally opened in October on the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, will eventually include more than a dozen top-level scientists—biologists, chemists, and experts in horticulture and genomics—who will collaborate with other universities, government agencies, and private businesses to determine how to boost the nutritive value of fruits and vegetables. Eventually, they hope to create foods more healthful to diabetics, people at high risk for cancer, and others fighting nutrition-influenced diseases—as well as the general public. “Americans are looking for ways to protect their own health,” says Dr. Mary Ann Lila, professor of food science and founding director of PHHI. “Through our public-private partnership with Dole Food Company, Inc., we have a pipeline to getting benefits directly to consumers.”
Top researchers from eight North Carolina universities will collaborate with government scientists and private businesses to determine how to boost the nutritive value of fruits and vegetables.
David Murdock, the owner of Dole, is investing more than $1 billion to create NCRC on the site of a former textile mill. Seven North Carolina universities will join NC State on the campus. Several biotechnology and crop science companies and U.S. and foreign government agencies are considering locating nearby, says Dr. Steve Lommel, interim associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is coordinating NC State’s efforts at NCRC. “We’ll be working on next-generation problems of human nutrition and health that cannot be addressed by a single university,” Lommel says. “No place is better positioned to do this.”
In addition to setting up NCRC as a giant petri dish where researchers can combine their talents to produce results, Murdock has outfitted the 350-acre campus with state-of-the-art equipment. The instrumentation includes a 950-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer—the most powerful machine of its type in the world—to study complex proteins and molecular activity in great detail, as well as advanced imaging and genomics equipment. “Although there will be plenty of graduate students to mentor, this is clearly more a research institute than a university campus,” Lommel says. Murdock also provided NC State with $2 million to supplement faculty salaries and attract top researchers like Lila to PHHI. The North Carolina General Assembly has appropriated $1.8 million in recurring funds to supplement Murdock’s gift.
Lila, who spent 24 years at the University of Illinois as a plant biologist, says she was drawn to NC State by the “unprecedented opportunity” offered by NCRC. “We have the ability to do things here that you can’t do anywhere else,” she says, noting that PHHI’s capabilities helped land a $1.4 million grant even before the institute officially opened. Under the Medicines for Malaria Venture grant, NC State will work with Rutgers University and the University of Cape Town in South Africa in an effort to find anti-malarial compounds in plants.
“We have the ability to do things here that you can’t do anywhere else.”
A Chicago native who dreamed as a girl of being a florist, Lila has focused her research for more than a decade on biologically active compounds in produce. Fruits and vegetables have no natural defenses other than an array of chemicals that they produce when under stress. “The same compounds that protect plants have therapeutic benefits for humans,” she says. Since many of the compounds’ functions overlap, researchers must determine which are the key compounds and how they work together to become more potent. “There’s no magic bullet,” she says. “There’s always an interaction of compounds, which is why there’s no tendency to build resistance to them.”
Lila has traveled the globe, studying plants in locales as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, and sub-Saharan Africa to learn the medicinal uses of fruits and vegetables among different cultures. Some produce has antioxidant properties, while the active compounds in others turn on enzymes or open or close metabolic pathways. Although epidemiological studies have shown certain foods lower cancer risks or help diabetics, scientists have never been able to figure out why. “We now have the instruments and the expertise here to do that,” Lila says. “We can then use animal models to see how the compounds work in the system.”
The NCRC campus will include extensive greenhouses and test plots, allowing PHHI scientists to apply the latest plant breeding technologies to produce specific fruits and vegetables with higher concentrations of the key compounds. NC State researchers will then work with farmers across North Carolina to begin growing the improved crops commercially. “Mr. Murdock has shown tremendous vision,” Lila says. “It’s up to us to realize it.”