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International science conference shines a light on Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - Missouri is strengthening its international position as a leader in plant research and biotechnology.

That's the sentiment of the hosts of an elite international science conference in St. Louis this week. The ninth International Plant Molecular Biology Congress showcases current international plant research. The event was organized by the University of Missouri, Washington University, Monsanto, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others.

Nearly 1,300 participants have gathered in downtown St. Louis for the week-long event, half of them from places as far away as Brazil, Kenya, Europe and Southeast Asia.

This is the first time the congress has been hosted in the United States in more than two decades. Perry Gustafson, adjunct associate professor of agronomy at UM-C and chair of this year's congress, said that St. Louis' demonstrated expertise in biotechnology and gene study attracted IPMB. "We did not solicit the conference to be held here in St. Louis," he said. "The conference chose us. For the biological sciences in plants, very few places in the United States have this."

Gustafson said the conference aims to increase awareness of the need for scientific responses to the world's growing population. Studies have indicated that the world population will soar from 6.8 billion currently to 9 billion by 2040. Gustafson said wealthier nations need to provide more than food relief. They must help those in developing countries to design their own agricultural models so that they can feed themselves. "The last thing you want to do is just give food to people," he said.

When researchers are able to provide technology to farmers it gives them the chance to increase yield while at the same time minimizing the impact on the environment, Gustafson said.

Among the speakers opening the conference was U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. Gustafson noted that Bond has made a huge push in securing money for plant studies in his political career, including $950 million from the National Science Foundation for U.S. research. "There are a lot of things he could have championed, right?" he asked. "But he picked plant biology and agriculture."

Geoff Fincher, director of Waite Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia, discussed recent studies in gene research that could have positive effects on both human nutrition and fuel consumption. His comments centered on works with Poaceae, a class of flowering plants. Members of this group include grain crops, such as corn, and wheat and grasses -- all common Missouri exports.

Fincher also discussed studies that may be useful in lowering incidences of colorectal cancer, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

Elizabeth Kellogg, E. Desmond Lee and family pofessor of botanical studies at UM-St. Louis, said that plant studies, here in St. Louis and the U.S., have received increased attention recently due to the sheer amounts of grasses available as a resource, and the need for improved energy resources. "So that's one big push in biofuel operations," Kellogg said.

Other topics in the lectures included: use of plants to solve health problems, increasing yields in agricultural productivity and crop protection against drought and pathogens.

Mark McHugh is a freelance writer in St. Louis.