HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is expanding its research facilities.
The Institute is well-known for its work on issues related to human genomics but is ready to put its work in agriculture in the spotlight.
“We’ve been remiss explaining to the public, and to you, explaining how much we do in plants and have done from the very beginning,” said HudsonAlpha Co-Founder & Chairman, Jim Hudson.
Hudson said the company wants to expand the use of genomics to sustainably feed and fuel our planet.
One way HudsonAlpha plans to do that is by research conducted in a brand new facility. On Wednesday, HudsonAlpha revealed its brand new 14,000-square-foot greenhouse.
It has two labs and seven grow rooms.
“This facility captures the model developed by our institute’s founders, to apply the power of genomics to unlock solutions to make the world a better place,” said HudsonAlpha President, Neil Lamb.
The facility is several years in the making, according to Lamb.
“The dream and associated space began nearly 7 years ago as we looked to expand our plant-based research faculty,” Lamb continued. “Specifically, we were recruiting Dr. Swaminathan.”
Dr. Kankshita Swaminathan is a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha. She specializes in genomic solutions for sustainable agriculture.
At the ribbon cutting for the greenhouse on Wednesday, she said the new facility is a dream come true for her and other researchers.
“They gave me the confidence that it would become a reality, and here it is,” she said.
Sustainable agriculture is especially important looking into the future.
The Alabama Farmers Federation says by 2050, the global food supply will need to serve 9 billion people. That comes as the amount of available farmland is shrinking.
“Farmers are up to the task, but they are going to need the help of the folks like HudsonAlpha and what’s going on behind us today and what’s going to be going on, is unlocking the potential that’s embedded in the cell of every plant,” said Jeff Helms with the Alabama Farmers Federation.
Local and state officials were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong delivered remarks.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey also spoke at the ceremony and cut the ribbon.
Speaking with News 19 after the ceremony, Ivey said the work done in the greenhouse will help the whole state.
“All the results of that research will go a long way to helping our farmers deal with the agriculture of the 21st century,” she said. “So we are proud to join HudsonAlpha in this big milestone and we look for more of this to come.”
The greenhouse isn’t the only addition being made to the HudsonAlpha campus in Huntsville. The company is also building a new Discovery Life Science Global Headquarters right next door.
Jim Hudson said that project is expected to be completed by summer 2023.
After the ribbon cutting, News 19 spoke with one of the faculty investigators to learn more about the research and why it is needed.
At HudsonAlpha’s new ag accelerator site, the road to the future will come, in part, through the garden.
As genomics experts will use their talents to study crops and plants, to develop new species, hardier species, and better food supplies for a changing world. The new addition to HudsonAlpha will leverage its expertise to address emerging problems.
Josh Clevenger, a HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator said they are already working on ways to combat aflatoxin, a toxic mold that can affect peanut crops, especially when it’s especially hot. That’s just one of the projects the team at the ag accelerator will take on.
“We really utilize the gift that we’ve been given to do research here, to tackle those problems that a for-profit company probably wouldn’t want to look at,” Clevenger said. “And those are things like tolerance to drought, mitigation of aflatoxin, making better feedstocks and crops that might not be globally profitable, but might serve the growers here in Alabama, and the people here and the business leaders here in Alabama.”
The ag accelerator’s focus will have local ties, but that’s also paired with world-class skills.
“The ability to read DNA, quite frankly as fast and as good as anyone in the world, allows us to do really technical and efficient work here,” Clevenger said. “And having this greenhouse where we’re growing the plants and conducting the experiments on-site, and doing that genomics work is going to allow us to be even faster and more efficient.
It’s a small niche, filled with big dreams and ambition.
I’m really excited about trying to develop more drought-tolerant peanut varieties,” Clevenger said. “What we find in that is going to be able to be used across many plant species. Many of them aren’t big enough for the seed companies to invest the money in, stuff that we care about here locally, but also across the world.”
In a world facing climate challenges and shrinking farmland, genomics investigators can see a way forward.
“The resolution that we can now read DNA and understand how that DNA impacts the plant,” Clevenger said, “allows us to go after really high-value traits like utilization of nitrogen, more yield under less land, being able to grow crops efficiently on sort of low-margin areas, soils that aren’t specifically tuned for farming and getting the most out of those areas.”
HudsonAlpha officials expressed hope they can add up to three more greenhouse buildings for research and attract ag technology companies to move in.