Growing Magazine - March, 2009
Fruit and Vegetable Research Grows
From old mill to science center
|Buildings housing University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University scientists replaced
Kannapolis' namesake plant, Cannon Mills.
For close to a century,
Kannapolis, N.C., was home to Cannon Mills, a textile production company
that employed much of the town’s population. The plant closed in
2000, and now, a new venture has sprung up on the site of the old mill,
garnering public and private resources to form an advanced scientific
research center. Their work may mean that in the future you will be growing
vegetables specifically bred to battle diseases.
Developing the North Carolina Research Campus
David H. Murdock, owner of Dole Foods Company, Inc.
and Castle & Cooke NC, LLC, is the catalyst behind the North Carolina
Research Campus. Murdock purchased the mill in 1983, later selling the
business for operation elsewhere. The plant was demolished in 2005 to make
way for a markedly different type of production.
Murdock’s long-standing interest in nutrition,
health and related fields sparked the idea for a center dedicated to
research focused on biotechnology’s potential to fight diseases and improve health. Gathering top academic and
industry minds, quality facilities and
state-of-the-art equipment, Murdock hopes to facilitate collective research
leading to development of optimally beneficial foods and systems to support agriculture. Eight of the state’s universities, including Duke University and the University
of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, are engaged in these studies; the campus
also is home to related companies such as Dole Foods Research and
Development and Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute.
The campus, which opened last October, offers more
than 1 million square feet of wet lab and office space, experimental
greenhouses and land set aside for crop trials.
Developing plant food crops to enhance human health
As Americans seek to make their diets healthier, North
Carolina State University’s Plants for
Human Health Institute is supporting the
effort with plans to develop fruits and vegetables with enhanced health
|The campus offers its tenants access to the world’s strongest nuclear magnetic resonance
spectrometer, which aids in studies on the cellular and molecular levels.
Dr. Mary Ann Lila, the institute’s director, has
been involved in development for the past 18 months. Lila says the project
has already been awarded a grant to study plants that may be beneficial in
preventing and treating malaria.
“[We will be involved in the] analysis of
natural product bioactive unknown substances using technologies that
have never before been assembled in one place for use,” she says.
“This is an unprecedented chance to
discover safe, efficacious new strategies for
human health and endurance.”
New tools and knowledge will allow the institute to
establish a better understanding of the wellness benefits of common foods.
Presently, a vegetable might be deemed a “super food” based
upon the positive properties of a single element; for example, watermelon
is touted for its lycopene content. Lila says her work will provide a
more complete snapshot by analyzing the presence and interactions of the
many additional phytochemicals found within a food. This work will lead to
detailed nutritional guidance enabling consumers to potentially improve
chronic medical conditions and prevent diseases. In addition, understanding
genetic road maps will help scientists tailor breeding programs to develop
varieties that optimize health benefits. The group will also focus on
produce that is rarely grown in the United States to determine how those
foods could complement American diets.
“We are currently working on berry species that
are not known in the lower 48, but grow at extreme temperatures in the
Arctic and are loaded with health-protective phytochemicals,” Lila
adds. “We are also examining some South American fruits and
vegetables from Amazonian regions that have been used by indigenous people
for medical purposes.”
Although the institute is working globally, it is
focusing on produce that can be grown and/or processed in North Carolina.
Helping to deliver findings to growers and develop farm sustainability
efforts is the charge of NCSU’s Program for Value-Added and
Alternative Agriculture. Led by Dr. Blake Brown, the group originally
focused on tobacco growers’ transition, but has since relocated to
the research campus and expanded its work with small fruit and vegetables.
Brown will collaborate with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Service to educate growers on new products and enhanced food safety
|(Left) Dr. Mary Ann Lila heads the Plants for Human Health Institute.
She is particularly interested in compounds that counteract chronic
disease and enhance human metabolism. (Above) Dr. Blake Brown,
director, Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture, will help
educate growers on the research center's accomplishments
Other programs are dedicated to studies that will
facilitate the Plants for Human Health Institute’s work. The
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research
Institute will investigate a diet’s impact on brain development and
the prevention of cancer and obesity. A study of how metabolism varies
among the population will lead to individualized nutrition solutions.
Doctors in the future may be able to write specific “food
prescriptions” to treat a patient’s precise health conditions.
North Carolina Central University’s
Nutrition Research Program
will identify dietary exposure markers and
analyze bioactive natural products. Similar work is planned for the
University of North- Carolina
Greensboro’s Center for Research Excellence
in Bioactive Food Components. Bioactive food components
are biomolecules that regulate one or more of the metabolic processes;
understanding the properties of these components in foods will enable
scientists to formulate enhanced produce that is loaded with the optimal combination to treat
and/or prevent disease. Traditional Chinese
medicine, for example, has employed natural
products to treat metabolic disorders such as
diabetes that affect multiple functions in the
human body. Researchers will determine why and
how these components aid the metabolic
Delivering improved postharvest systems
Helping develop new safety processes and postharvest
technologies is the role of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical
State University (NCATSU). Its Center of
Excellence of Post-Harvest Technologies will be
researching processing, preservation and storage stability.
Co-director Dr. Mohammed Ahmedna says the complex and fast pace of food distribution makes
food safety a problem that will continue into
the future. Developing methods for limiting the
risk of contamination will be a key element of his work.
Both research and outreach are vital in that effort;
the center will help educate growers and others in the food industry, along
with consumers. Researchers will investigate effective methods of controlling food pathogens
and rapid ways to detect those problems. Better monitoring, along with a
total system approach from farm to table, is another avenue for minimizing
contamination. Improving production methods to reduce chemical inputs can
prevent some problems from the very beginning.
“We also need systems and methods for increasing
food value along the chain,” he adds. “Nothing should be
wasted; we need to find ways to use everything.”
Ahmedna wants to identify ways in how what is often
viewed as waste can be repositioned as an opportunity for added value.
Improved harvesting can reduce the total amount that must be culled.
Remaining produce that isn’t marketable can be put to work as food
packaging, newly developed products or biofuel. In addition, the center
will aim to deliver more usable product by enhancing processing and
distribution methods to increase shelf life.
“All these things will happen a lot faster if
there is a relationship between growers and researchers,” he says.
“Growers are the key component in our food
system and we really want to help them.”
Ahmedna urges producers to take full advantage
of opportunities to interface with researchers
and stay on top of their advances through the cooperative extension and
Other research campus programs
Appalachian State University will examine the role of
plant molecules on muscle and human performance. Duke University’s
work will focus on improved disease classification and prevention by basing
health strategies on an individual’s genetic profile.
The research campus offers a variety of health and
business-related workshops, some available at no cost. Learn about those
classes and the center’s latest news online at www.ncresearchcampus.net.
Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes
articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has
been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.