From old mill to science center
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 benefits.
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 techniques.
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 processes.
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 associations.
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.