UI Research Park sign.jpg

A sign at the entrance to the University of Illinois Research Park is shown Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, at the corner of First Street and St. Mary's Road in Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — Researchers hope to speed up gene editing in crops at a new greenhouse being built at the University of Illinois Research Park.

They could eventually grow corn in the 9,000-square-foot facility, which will have 14-foot walls.

“What we want to install in there is the state-of-the-art equipment to be able to quantify the way in which the plants grow and determine yield parameters, and then relate that to genomic information and differences in the plants,” said Donald Ort, the deputy director of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE, project.

The project’s mission: to feed a growing world population by improving photosynthesis in crops through gene editing.

Ort said they started with tobacco and are “moving into food and feed crops, focusing on soybean, cowpea and cassava,” a starchy root vegetable.

Sequencing DNA in the plant genes has become a rapid and relatively cheap process, Ort said, but “what’s become the real bottleneck is correlating differences in genomic information and what it causes at the plant level.”

This “required a greenhouse with specific dimensions and environmental controls,” Ort said.

The $3.2 million greenhouse will be paid for with RIPE funds.

Formed in 2012 with a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the RIPE project was renewed in 2017 for another five years with more funding from Gates, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the U.S. Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

The greenhouse’s foundation could be poured next month, Ort said, with the goal of it opening some time next year.

“The reason to do it on the Research Park was because there was the likelihood of being able to do it more quickly,” Ort said. “In order to be useful for us in the time frame of our ongoing project, we needed to have something up and going within a year.”

Fox/Atkins Development will provide architectural and civil engineering services for the project, which the Research Park LLC board approved at its meeting last week.

It will be located on Fourth Street between St. Mary’s Road and Hazelwood Drive.

“The idea of that is to have adjacency to existing agriculture property,” Research Park Director Laura Frerichs said.

She said having the greenhouse on Research Park land fits well with the park’s focus on agriculture technology.

“For a long time, we thought about having a greenhouse in the park as being conducive to growing an ag-tech community,” she said. “And this is an opportunity to partner with the Institute for Genomic Biology and the College of ACES to have a new greenhouse facility.”

The RIPE project may be renewed for another five years, Ort said, but once it is done, the greenhouse will be turned over to the College of ACES.

Once that happens, Frerichs said the ag companies with offices at the Research Park could get involved with the greenhouse.

“Building an ag-tech cluster here at the Research Park is a priority,” she said.

Frerichs also noted that it allows the UI Research Park to remain competitive with other universities’ setups.

“Examples of that include Nebraska and Purdue’s research parks, and in both cases, those are sophisticated facilities that have automation inside,” she said.