BLACKSBURG, April 15, 2000 -- Virginia Tech will receive $11.6 million in state money over the next two years to help fund development of an institute for advanced research into plant and animal genetics.
The state money approved Friday will fund a portion of the $39 million Center for Advancement of Life Sciences, which Tech officials believe will launch the university into a leadership position in the emerging field of bioinformatics. The center will include a $21 million research facility.
"This opens up opportunities for development of a completely new field of study," Tech President Charles Steger said.
At least $5.1 million in state money will come from Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement. The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, a panel charged with spending the settlement money, approved the funding during its meeting Friday at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.
The commission agreed to approve another $6.5 million for the center next year if Tech is unable to get the money from the General Assembly.
The research center was a major component of a $69 million economic development package proposed last year by Gov. Jim Gilmore. He applauded the commission Friday for funding the project, saying it will "begin to lay a solid foundation for prosperity in Southside and Southwest Virginia."
The commission's unanimous vote marked the first significant spending decision the panel has made since its creation last year. State Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, who heads the 31-member body, said Friday's vote may prove to be one of the most important the commission ever makes.
If Southwest and Southside Virginia develop a strong biotechnology presence, they no longer will have to rely so much on agriculture and manufacturing jobs, Hawkins said.
"This one is the one that I personally believe changes the direction of who we are in the new century and what we are about," Hawkins told the commission.
Bioinformatics -- the merger of computers and biotechnology -- has become important because of the volume of data involved in the study of DNA, the genetic blueprint of plants and animals. By creating databases, scientists will have more efficient ways to retrieve and analyze that information and can accelerate their research.
With greater understanding of genetics, scientists can gain new insights into diseases and produce medicines tailored to specific illnesses, Steger said.
Tracy Wilkins, acting director of the new center, said the university has begun recruiting scientists to staff it. Wilkins said those prospects include a "world-class" scientist who is being pursued by some of the nation's most elite research institutions.
The new center will establish an Internet "portal" for compiling and analyzing data on plant science research throughout the world, Tech officials said. The institute also will serve as a hub for collaborative research efforts with private companies and other academic institutions.
Research conducted at the institute will include studies of ways to engineer drought-resistant and chemical-resistant crops. Scientists also will further the university's ongoing research of transgenic animals and plants and production of medicines by inserting a human gene.
Tech scientists already have pioneered development of transgenic tobacco plants. These plants produce human enzymes that could be used in medicines. The possibility of advancing that science through bioinformatics appealed to commission members, who hope tobacco growers can benefit from the university's research.
"What we can do, in my humble opinion, is work at something that is truly new and different," Hawkins said. "Virginia Tech is at the exact point, at the exact time it needs to be, to drive an economic engine" for the regions.
Tech was not the only recipient of tobacco settlement money Friday. The commission also approved $6 million for job training and other programs at the following community colleges: Southside, Danville, Patrick Henry, Southwest Virginia, Mountain Empire, Virginia Highlands and Central Virginia.
The panel postponed a decision on a funding request from Blacksburg-based CropTech Development Corp. and an alliance of tobacco growers, who want state support for a partnership that would produce transgenic tobacco on farms in Southwest and Southside Virginia.
CropTech and a farmer-owned tobacco company called ToBio LLC asked the commission for $12 million over the next two years to pay for research and development, product testing and specialized farm equipment. CropTech chief executive officer Brandon Price said the seed money would help kick-start an industry in which demand for transgenic tobacco could exceed 68,000 acres by 2015. Virginia farmers now produce about 38,600 acres of tobacco yearly, according to state statistics.
Hawkins said the commission will discuss the partnership's funding request next month.
Though intrigued by the possibility of finding new uses for tobacco, some members of the commission hesitated Friday before supporting Tech's new research center. Del. Ted Bennett, D-Halifax County, worried that tobacco-dependent communities had been "cut out of the loop" and had insufficient opportunities to submit proposals for the settlement money.
But Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, said the commission still has $5 million to allocate this year for economic development.
April 14, 2000