Danforth Center in St. Louis fighting global hunger, disease

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Since it was founded five years ago, researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis have worked tenaciously to fight global hunger, benefit human nutrition and diminish disease.

It's all been done through the concept called life sciences, a program that Southeast Missouri State University is developing for this area through the creation of a new business incubator and 400-acre research park.

While the two programs won't look exactly the same, it's a fair comparison, considering that partnerships are being cultivated between the university and the Danforth Center and some of the work will be similar.

"We do see opportunities for collaboration and interaction with them in the future. It makes sense," said Dr. Karel Schubert, vice president of technology management for the Danforth Center.

Schubert said that center personnel have met with people like university president Dr. Ken Dobbins in the past. He doesn't see any reason the center won't work with the university, as it does with other universities across the country.

The center's primary mission is to carry out the best basic science related to plants anywhere in the world, Schubert said.

"We take knowledge raised from that and find applications and opportunities to utilize that knowledge," he said.

The $75 million project has yielded a 150,000-foot facility with 15 laboratories and 14 greenhouses used by 110 scientific researchers every day.

The projects are myriad, including one to increase the content of folate in certain crops. Folate and irons are the two most severe micronutrient deficiencies in the world, Schubert said. More than 20 percent of pregnant woman have inadequate amounts of folate, which can lead to spina bifida.

It also increases incidents of miscarriages, raises low birth rates and, if infants have low-folate diets, can lead to impaired cognitive development.

"We're focusing in on increasing folate in things like rice, which feeds almost half the world's population, which they're not getting sufficiently in their diets," Schubert said.

More zinc

Scientists at the center are also interested in increasing the content of zinc in foods, which is important to the immune system. Another scientist is working to increase the vitamin E content of corn seeds by sixfold.

This could reduce both cholesterol levels and inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

The center is also working with cassava plants, a starchy root crop that is a staple food for about 600 million people. Researchers are working to make cassava less susceptible to viruses, which would make it more plentiful.

"With a projected world population estimated at 9 billion by 2050, this is very important," Schubert said.

The connection to economic development through projects like this is clear, he said.

"All of these things that would impact nutritional value create opportunities in economic development, because somebody would have to supply it," he said. "That would be done through companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Nestle-Purina."

Life sciences, Schubert said, has been an exciting development in the St. Louis area.

"We think we're making a difference through science," he said. "There's no reason to think a similar difference couldn't be made at Southeast."


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