BLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 01, 2002 - High value ornamental plants such as orchids could be grown by Southside farmers to supplement their income from tobacco, according to a horticulture professor at Virginia Tech.

Developing these plants will involve both horticulture and bioinformatics and will be one major focus of Danville's Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, said Professor Jerzy Nowak, head of Virginia Tech's horticulture department.

"Some apple growers started growing ornamentals as a supplement, and now the ornamentals are bringing in more money than the apple orchards," Nowak said.

The bioinformatics component of the work will be done by a computer database that is planned for the institute. The database will store and organize the biological characterization of ornamental plants and other crops under development.

Bruno W. Sobral, director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, defined bioinformatics as "basically the mathematical understanding of living organisms." To explain further, Sobral likened changes in airplane design to possible future changes in plant breeding.

"When the Wright brothers built the first plane, they made quick drawings, nailed the plane together and tried it. Now Boeing designs 777s with a computer. To get FAA approval, they submit an electronic virtual plan. That's kind of what's going on in biology," Sobral said.

"Conventional breeding programs occupy a huge amount of space, time and resources. Being able to model that process in a computer would save huge amounts of time and resources."

A computer network for sharing a variety of life sciences information may be formed to enhance collaboration between the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Danville's Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, according to Neysa Call, outreach director at the bioinformatics institute.

Call is also planning educational programs for teachers and high school and college students in Southside Virginia, she said. They will be funded by two grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Another goal of the institute in Danville will be developing "low-input crops," Nowak said. He explained that low-input crops benefit from associations with microorganisms that occur naturally in soil, and therefore don't need as many herbicides and fertilizers.

Once the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research is up and running next fall, Novak said he plans to spend at last one day each week working on institute-related projects. The horticulture department plans to have two full-time faculty, a plant breeder and graduate students working at the facility in Danville, he said.

"I've liked creating new things all of my life, and this is a tremendous opportunity to be part of development," Nowak said.

Nowak, Call and Sobral are members of the Southside Implementation Team, an outreach group at Virginia Tech that focuses on Southside Virginia.

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Published by Public Relations, November 30, 2002