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Published May 12, 2014, 09:43 AM

ND corn growers seek high-tech research facility

The North Dakota Corn Growers Association is working to bring a first-of-its-kind research facility to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The North Dakota Corn Growers Association is working to bring a first-of-its-kind research facility to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

The proposed National Agricultural Genotyping Center would provide genotyping services for general food safety, livestock markets, state health labs, organic fruit and vegetable markets and veterinary and pet markets.

Genotyping is the process of identifying differences in an individual’s genetic make-up.

“It would be a very good bridge between existing university research and potential commercialization in the future,” says Tom Lilja, executive director of the association of the proposed center.

About 25 North Dakota commodity and farm groups have signed a letter supporting North Dakota’s bid.

“We think there’s a pretty good opportunity to get it,” Lilja says.

North Dakota, besides growing large amounts of corn and soybeans, also produces livestock and many other crops. That diversity, as well as the 14 different crop breeding programs at NDSU, makes its campus a natural location for the proposed center, Lilja says.

The National Corn Growers Association, which is involved in the project, has a July 1 deadline for site applications. The national corn group then will narrow the list of applicants to the top two or three and conduct site visits in August, with a final decision coming in early to late fall, Lilja says.

It hasn’t been decided yet whether the facility, if approved for North Dakota, would locate in existing space or a new building.

The state corn group has developed a business plan that will require at least $4.75 million at start-up to make the proposed facility profitable within three years.

The North Dakota Corn Utilization Council already has committed $1 million to the project.

Other potential funding sources include commodity organizations, state entities, foundations and private companies, according to information from the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

The association has requested $100,000 from the North Dakota Agricultural Productions Utilization Commission, a committee of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, to help fund a feasibility study. The commission is scheduled to consider the request at its May 14 meeting in Williston.

Joint effort

The National Corn Growers Association and Los Alamos (N.M.) Laboratory incorporated the nonprofit National Agricultural Genotyping Center late last year. Los Alamos Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution, has developed technology that officials say can play an invaluable role in the commercialization of genotyping.

Rick Vierling, Washington, D.C.-based director of research and new uses for the National Corn Growers Association, is active in the National Ag Genotyping Center. He tells Agweek that he can’t comment on North Dakota’s effort to land it because he’s a member of the site selection committee.

But he describes the proposed center as “a new approach.”

“There’s a huge void between research and commercialization.” The proposed center would “help to bridge that (and) to bring more technology to the market,” he says.

The center could provide service for public sector researchers, fee-for-services for private industry and be involved with start-up spinoff companies, he says.

The Florida citrus industry is interested in having a genotyping center. But it’s too early to tell what, if anything, will come of that, Vierling says.

The science behind it

The proposed center’s roots are in the long push, completed in 2009, to map corn’s genome and subsequent efforts to make practical use of that knowledge, Lilja says.

“It’s a long time coming,” he says.

A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all its genes. Genotype is an individual’s collection of genes.

Los Alamos Laboratory developed what it calls a “rapid multiplex assay.” An assay is an investigative procedure used by scientists.

The technology allows the rapid testing of many unique DNA samples much faster and more cheaply than competing technology, according to the National Agricultural Genotyping Laboratory website.

The National Ag Genotyping Center is licensed to use the technology for the ag sector and develop new tests to suit customers’ specific needs, the website says.

The technology already has been used to identify pathogens in humans and citrus, according to the website.

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