UT scientists get millions to study potatoes

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The University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture is leading the charge on research surrounding potatoes and their ability to detect matter in the soil and air. 

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture is receiving up to $7.5 million from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s for a study that will use potatoes to detect nerve agents, radiation and plant pathogens to help deployed troops and civilians in war-torn areas.

Food Science Professor Scott Lenaghan says the goal of their research is to get a potato plant to communicate to scientists in a variety of ways. 

In order to get the plants to tell researchers more than they already do, they’ll have to genetically modify the plants to detect things like pathogens, pests or chemicals they can’t detect themselves. 

The effort is being funding through DERPA. 

The ultimate goal, according to Lenaghan, is to provide assistance to American troops overseas. The genetically modified potatoes ideally would detect compounds in the environment in the air or soil for soldiers in combat.

“The big picture, you would look at this as a satellite deployment where the potatoes would be grown in foreign soil and that would provide feedback to intelligence communities,” he said. 

The initiative would also help local farmers, he says. Ideally, the potato plants will be able to detect early when a plant is under stress from something like pests or pathogens, allowing the farmer to mitigate the problem. 

The UTIA will modify lab plants and get them to meet desired testing ability and responses.  
A big advantage to the plant is the tuber in the ground (what we know as the potato) and the plant growing above it, that allows them to test air and water surrounding the plant. 

While modifying the plant to respond to certain compounds, researchers also have to find ways the plant can indicate an issue. 

Reporters, like florescent color, will allow the plant would glow under certain conditions. 

The project is in three phases and is expected to take four years. Altogether, the complete project is budgeted to cost $7.5 million. 

Lenaghan says UTIA is the lead of the project and they’re even subcontracting top tier services including MIT and the National Security Lab. 

The funding will help with the overhead needed to fulfill the goal, according to Lenaghan. He says the federal dollars are helping the university, including paying for 15 full-time jobs. The money also helped the UTIA create the Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology, the first university research for synthetic biology. 

Alex Pfotenhauer is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. His work involves modifying the plant to react to certain environments.

“When they come in contact with certain stimuli such as radiation, or weapons of mass destruction, that will turn on, creating florescence in the plant, they will turn green or red in the presence of certain stimuli,” Pfotenhauer said. 

“We are at the forefront of this innovative technology. We are leading some of the other big boys like MIT. We’re playing on the same field so I think that’s important for us,” Lanaghan added. 

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