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Virginia Tech leads the way in ag biotechnology initiative

Kiho Lee

Kiho Lee, who is working with pigs to increase muscle mass, is one of the many scientists working in agricultural biotechnologies and biosciences.

Agricultural biotechnology is an emerging industry that blends the artistry of molecular science with agricultural production to boost productivity and improve plants, animals, and microorganisms using techniques that are not possible with traditional crossing of related species alone.

The industry received a shot in the arm when Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced plans for a Virginia Bioscience Initiative in 2014. The effort would leverage the state’s research universities and the private sector to catalyze the growth of the emerging industry in the commonwealth.

The ag bioscience initiative is part of Gov. McAuliffe’s broad effort to create a New Virginia Economy that seeks to overhaul the state’s dependency on what has traditionally been federal funding. The program’s goals include raising the profile of the Virginia bioscience industry, enhancing incentives for bioscience businesses, using existing assets to create new opportunities, developing a bioscience workforce, and promoting commercialization of university research.

And the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is well-positioned to meet the needs of the nascent industry.

Faculty members in the college perform myriad ag technology and biosciences research programs that run the gamut from developing alternative sources of energy to increasing swine production.

In the Department of Food Science and Technology, Assistant Professor Andrew Neilson is working on infusing food with nutraceuticals like cocoa flavanols — compounds that greatly lower blood sugar levels and prevent weight gain in mice that are fed a high-fat diet.

Virginia Tech biological systems engineering graduate Joe Rollin and Professor Percival Zhang are creating revolutionary alternative energy systems using the abundant agricultural resource of corn stover to create zero-emissions hydrogen fuel.

“As Virginia’s leading research university, Virginia Tech is already at the forefront of a lot of agricultural biosciences research and development,” said Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the college. “We look forward to helping grow this industry in the commonwealth even further.”

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Building a better chicken

High and low growth chickens and a cross between the two that are part of Paul Siegel's research since the 1950'sHerbert Hoover’s presidential campaign once promised a chicken in every pot, but Elizabeth Gilbert is taking that promise a step further — she wants to ensure it’s the most nutritionally balanced chicken in the pot.

An assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences, Gilbert is helping Virginia poultry producers maximize chicken production to get the most meat they can from their birds. Poultry was a top agricultural export for the commonwealth in 2013, exceeding $186 million.

Gilbert studies fat tissue development and epigenetic regulation of gene expression in chickens. Epigenetics is the gene activity not related to DNA. She is looking at the role of neuropeptides in fat deposition and how the dietary composition of fat, carbohydrate, and protein influences the accumulation of fat.

“Understanding factors regulating subcutaneous fatty connective tissue development may have profound implications for the broiler industry,” Gilbert said. “By providing information that can affect body composition, we can help increase the quality of the meat in the birds and boost profits.”

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