With ongoing research relationships that span
every continent, a steady stream of international visitors exploring
new opportunities, leadership positions in worldwide professional
societies and a multicultural scientific workforce, global collaborations
are a staple of daily life at the USDA National Center for Agricultural
Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria.
Operated by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and
known locally as “The Ag Lab”, NCAUR opened its doors in December
1940 and began a partnership with British scientists in July 1941. This
partnership resulted in the mass production of penicillin and worldwide
introduction to the age of antibiotics.
At that time, the identification of microbial cultures was painstakingly
slow and conducted over a period of many days. Today, DNA
sequencing allows researchers to make identifications within hours.
“We were one of the few facilities using the sequencing technology
in the late 1980s. Our use included building a database of
genetic information on thousands of microbes,” notes Dr. Cletus
Kurtzman, research leader, microbiologist and curator of the ARS
Microbial Culture Collection housed at the Peoria lab. “Scientists
came from around the world to learn about what we were doing.
As they continued working in this arena, they contributed back to
our database and increased the overall understanding of microbial
germplasm and its biological potential.”
That database, built through years of global contribution, is now
the foundation of many rapid detection methods used around the
world to identify useful and harmful microbes. The database can also
be used to show genetic relationships and predict the possibility of
new biotechnological uses.
Today, the ARS Microbial Culture Collection contains nearly 90,000
strains of bacteria, yeasts and molds and is widely regarded as the largest
and most useful of the publicly available collections. The collection
continues to have significant impact on world science. Some 4,000
samples are distributed each year, often with accompanying knowledge
to assist countries developing new research programs.
Through another NCAUR program, corn germplasm is exchanged
with Nigerian scientists in an effort to provide traits from U.S. corn for increased yield and to obtain traits from Nigerian corn for increased
resistance to drought.
“Much of our work is in developing methodologies and technologies
that advance the frontiers of science,” notes Dr. Mark Berhow,
NCAUR research chemist. “They may not be the next big thing in
the news, but they provide the foundations that are so important to
scientific progress around the world.”
Berhow has worked with scientists from Brazil to chemically
analyze the natural product properties of wild mustard, which has
potential for use as a primary ingredient of biodiesel, fertilizer, pesticides
and nutritional additives.
Authoring articles for peer-reviewed publications and participation
in professional societies provides valuable opportunities for
interaction and international collaboration. The 100 Ph.D. researchers
at NCAUR have ongoing relationships established in more than 30
countries. Scientists from around the world routinely make arrangements
to visit NCAUR and work on projects of high interest, with
durations that range from two weeks to two years. Most come to tap
into NCAUR expertise; in exchange, their contributions help move
NCAUR projects forward.
A recent visit by Taiwanese scientists to work on rice and cassava
starch focused on NCAUR’s unique extrusion processing capabilities.
“They gain the benefit of our equipment and process knowledge;
we have an opportunity to work with a material we don’t usually
work with,” says their NCAUR host and research chemist, Dr. Victoria
Finkenstadt. “The similarities in our research brought us together,
but it was the differences in how the starches behave that were amazing. For example, cassava, a non-food crop in the U.S., may provide
an alternative to heavy reliance on corn starch for commercial
and industrial product uses."
Most partnerships are initiated at the scientist-to-scientist level.
However, cooperative, mutually beneficial research projects between
the ARS agency and the international research community are also
sources of international collaborations at NCAUR.
One example is the biofuels research agreement between the
USDA and China’s Ministry Of Science and Technology to cooperate
in establishing processes and infrastructure for conversion of various
feedstocks to ethanol. Another is EMBRAPA LABEX-USA, a Brazilian ‘virtual’
laboratory in the U.S. that provides for senior Brazilian scientists to
collaborate with ARS staff at host laboratories such as NCAUR. Shared
projects at NCAUR have included developing biocontrol methods
against insects, chemically converting soybean oil into fuel, and engineering
enzymes for more efficiently converting crops into biofuels.
“These scientific exchanges both contribute to and reflect the
prestige of NCAUR as a center for international excellence, and that’s
important,” says Dr. Mike Cotta, NCAUR research leader and microbiologist.
“Our visibility as a world leader in agricultural research is what
allows us to continually attract world-class scientific talent to conduct
research of significant impact.”
As life has become increasingly globalized, the importance of
a closely connected international research community has also
increased. The need for renewable fuels and bioproducts, greater
crop productivity, safe food supply, enhanced nutritional value of
food, environmental stewardship—all of these issues and more are
without geographical borders.
“Each scientist needs to roll up our sleeves and work on these
things,” says Berhow. “The more people working together, the better,
because the problems we face will not be solved by a single institution
and one solution is likely interrelated to others.”
As NCAUR researchers publish an average annual total of more
than 200 articles for peer-reviewed scientific publications, the lab
continues, as it has for nearly 70 years, to extend the excellence of ARS
research from the heartland of the United States to the world. iBi