Researchers seek to understand plants’ pathways to better health

July 24, 2013

The Packer

7/24/2013 11:47:00 AM
Coral Beach

A new program at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis that is funded by industry and academia promises to train tomorrow’s scientists while finding how to grow more healthful fruits and vegetables.

Dubbed the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP), the program kicks off this summer with $1.5 million in funding, according to a news release. Financial and in-kind support are being provided by several of North Carolina’s university divisions including N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute and the University of North Carolina at at Charlotte, as well as the Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, General Mills and the David H. Murdock Research Institute.

Goals include unlocking the secrets to how naturally occurring chemical reactions in plants such as fruits and vegetables, called pathways, benefit human health. Development of a database of existing research on plant pathways is the other primary goal of the program’s creators.

“By answering the questions of how, why and what healthy compounds plants produce, we’ll be able to advance scientific research, create opportunities for industry and consumers, and ultimately enhance human health,” said Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at N.C. State, in the release.

The initial funding is scheduled to pay for P2EP through the end of the 2017 fiscal year, but organizers said in the news release they plan to extend the project indefinitely.

For the first summer, 29 students from 10 North Carolina colleges and universities are involved. They have been split into six lab teams with doctoral candidates leading teams of undergraduate students.

Initial projects include research on blueberries, broccoli, strawberries and oats. Students are conducting genome sequencing while studying the plants’ pathways.

“Being involved in this program gives us, as a food company, the opportunity to communicate to (consumers) just what we can accomplish with the new technologies available at the North Carolina Research Center,” Nicholas Gillitt, director of nutrition research for Dole Food Co. and part of the P2EP leadership, said in the news release.

Eric Jackson, another member of the principal P2EP leadership staff and principal scientist at General Mills, is coordinating the genetic mapping portion of the project.

“This project will give us the tools to create better varieties of blueberries, strawberries, oats, broccoli and other crops we focus on down the road,” Jackson said in the release. “Once we map the pathways we can start developing practical, applied technologies to get the science to the table and benefit human health.”

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