BLACKSBURG, Dec. 14, 1999 - A $39 million research center at Virginia Tech would be the first phase of a six-year, $100 million plan to develop an institute for advanced research using high-powered computers to study plant genetics, university officials said Monday. If the plan becomes reality, the institute would employ as many as 100 people at the Blacksburg campus. About half of those would be hired in the next two years, Tech officials said.
The institute will connect academic and commercial efforts, and allow Tech to enhance its reputation as a leader in biotechnology, university officials said.
"We see an entirely new industry being created through the convergence of biotechnology and information technology," said Charles Steger, who will take over as Tech's president next month. "We think this has tremendous potential, ranging from helping solve problems of human health, feeding the world's burgeoning populations, and creating high-tech jobs here in Virginia."
Tech officials said the merger of computers and biotechnology -- known as bioinformatics -- has become important because of the volume of data involved in the study of DNA, the genetic blueprints of plants and animals.
"The new information is exciting, but also overwhelming," said Tracy Wilkins, the director of the Fralin Biotechnology Center at Tech. "With the help of new disciplines like bioinformatics, scientists can organize this vast amount of information in ways that will allow fast progress in solving problems of human health and ensuring our world food supply."
Wilkins said research conducted at the institute would include a study of ways to engineer drought-tolerant and chemical-resistant crops. Scientists at the institute also may further the university's ongoing research of transgenic plants and animals and their abilities to produce pharmaceuticals.
Tech officials said the institute also would establish an Internet "portal" for compiling and analyzing data on plant science research throughout the world. And, the university would serve as the hub for collaborative efforts in bioinformatics in Virginia.
"This is a natural for Virginia Tech," said Tech Executive Vice President Minnis Ridenour, who has participated in planning the institute for more than two years. "We have a leading college of agriculture and life sciences, have been the impetus for several major statewide information technology initiatives, and have been pushing the boundaries of biotechnology since its inception."
Wilkins said Tech is taking a leap into bioinformatics at a critical time, as research institutions throughout the country jockey for leadership in the emerging field.
"It was a situation where we needed to do something now or miss the train," Wilkins said. "We didn't want to miss the train. We want to be at the front of the train."
Tech officials identified Iowa State and the University of California at Berkeley as examples of two schools that have recently launched research initiatives in similar fields.
Gov. Jim Gilmore included funding for the institute's first phase in a $69 million economic development package for Southwest and Southside Virginia announced Saturday.
If the General Assembly approves Gilmore's plan, Tech would receive $9.7 million in state funds from the national tobacco settlement to establish an operations center and hire faculty. The university will receive an additional $1.9 million in state money to build three research greenhouses.
To complete the first phase, the university also will issue bonds for $21.9 million to build the first of two research centers and will seek $5.8 million in federal and private funding to purchase equipment.
Wilkins will serve as the institute's acting director until the university hires a permanent head. Wilkins said all of the institute's buildings will be constructed on the Tech campus, though university officials have not selected specific sites. The institute will operate from a building at Tech's Corporate Research Center until on-campus facilities are complete, Wilkins said.
Monday's announcement marked the second major research initiative undertaken by Tech in as many months. Tech last month joined the University of Virginia and Carilion Health System in announcing plans to establish a biomedical institute to transform university research into commercial health care products.
The research initiatives are part of Tech's efforts to focus on its strengths, said Peggy Meszaros, the university's senior vice president and provost.
"Our goal is to make Virginia Tech the premier institution in these new emerging sciences," Meszaros said. "We will partner with Virginia's other senior universities to leverage each other's strengths and bring the best minds to the state".
December 13, 1999