A Celebration of Innovation

NC State Crop and Soil Sciences researchers recognized for plant and genetic innovation patents

10,091,963 was a number of prime importance in 2018.  It was the second patent number issued jointly to Drs. Ralph Dewey and Ramsey Lewis last year.  Drs. Dewey and Lewis are molecular biologists and plant breeders (respectively) in NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.  Both were recently honored for their host of patented achievements at the NC State Chancellor’s Celebration of Innovation.

Innovation is a central tenet to the university’s land-grant purpose.  “Research universities are one of the strongest assets America can use to compete in the age of innovation,” the Milken Institute’s The Best Universities for Technology Transfer report states.  Innovation in the life science arena is big business for NC.  The NC Biotechnology Center reports that NC is home to 170+ agriculture technology companies including 5 of the top 6 in global ag technology.  All of these players contribute to a knowledge base clearing scientific paths for the state’s $92B ag economy.  

NC Tobacco Still Produces

Drs. Dewey and Lewis have a combined three decades dedicated to crop improvement in tobacco.  While tobacco income and acreage have steadily declined, tobacco is still NC’s number four crop totaling $479MM in 2018 cash receipts.  NC still dominates the national tobacco market as the country’s number one producer, growing 78% of US-produced flue-cured tobacco. Despite a statewide 20% decline in planted acreage, tobacco’s economic value proves that varietal improvement is still of great significance to NC agriculture.

Most tobacco varieties grown in NC originated at NC State
Tobacco growing in an Edgecombe County field between Leggett and Hobgood.

Improvement Starts Here

“65% of NC tobacco acreage is planted in varieties originating here at NC State,” Dr. Lewis noted.  And it is still the hub for tobacco research and extension. Drs. Dewey and Lewis work on the front end of plant improvement research using both traditional and biotechnology-based approaches, including emerging gene-editing technologies, to identify genes of interest and to alter the genetics of the plant for a variety of desired effects.  

Research Benefiting Consumers & Growers

Tobacco air cures in a NC barn
Tobacco air cures in a barn at the Mountain Research Station and farms in Haywood County.

Drs. Dewey and Lewis’s research poses benefits to the bioscience industry, consumers and growers alike.  Their string of patents and patent applications describe technologies that can be applied toward reducing the levels of key carcinogens in tobacco products, dramatically lowering the levels of nicotine within the plant, and enhancing the plant’s disease defense capabilities.  These plant improvements not only hold great potential for application in conventional tobacco products, but also hold promise in efforts to develop varieties that can be used toward implementation in certain smoking cessation strategies, use in pharmaceutical production, or as biofuel feedstocks.  Additionally, identifying and utilizing genes that enhance that plant’s ability to ward off microbial pathogens is key to the development of improved tobacco varieties that offer growers more stable crops with greater field resilience.   

Playing Through

But it’s not a short game they are in.  Producing a finished variety of high quality ready for the commercial market can take 10-15 years.  A full third of that time is spent just developing potential in the lab. Promising varieties proceed to field trials absorbing an additional five or more years.  “Our goal is to improve plant varieties with desirable attributes, like high yielding cured tobacco with significant disease resistance … The challenge is improving a variety for one trait – it still has to be satisfactory for a collection of other traits.  That’s not so easy to do. [Tobacco variety] NC 1226 is a newly released variety that will be sold for the first time next year. It has an outstanding combination of high yield and black shank resistance,” Dr. Lewis commented. The development pipeline is a gauntlet, whittling the prospective field to only the most promising options.

There’s more to innovation than just the discovery

But progress can follow a meandering line.  Dr. Lewis noted that “There’s more to innovation than just the discovery.  There are regulatory, business, and legal aspects to consider.” “…And many of those may be bigger hurdles than the scientific ones,” Dr. Dewey concluded.  But the synergy of their research produces a market-driven perspective. “Interacting with Ramsey allows me to view basic research beyond the confinements of the lab. I always try and maintain a perspective of how the lab-based knowledge we acquire can be applied toward solving a real world problem.” Dr. Dewey said.

Genetic Potential for Many Crops

Dr. Ralph Dewey has been awarded a total of 17 patents in the area of tobacco harm reduction, 9 held jointly with Dr. Lewis – and several more already filed.  His lab, in partnership with NC State plant biologists, has been part of the Plant Metabolic Engineering Group on NC State’s Centennial Campus for over 15 years.  This organically formed research group collaborates across university disciplines for plant science innovation including genomic editing, the current bellwether of biosciences.

“In plant improvement, there is no shortage of problems to work on.  Our job is to discover where there are biological solutions,” Dr. Lewis noted.  Their plant improvement techniques have significant applications beyond tobacco.  Both Dewey and Lewis are working on other crop improvements including clary sage (highly valuable to the health & beauty market) and stevia (a low-calorie natural sweetener).  

A Model of NC State’s ‘Think & Do’

It’s an example of what can happen when you have the right people in the right places – if you have a continuum of expertise.

Dr. Lewis sees their patent achievements as a proof point of the university’s ‘Think & Do’ motto.  “This is a great example within this college of taking something from gene discovery to researching new technology to commercializing the discovery. It’s going from A to Z. We’ve done all that right here. It’s an example of what can happen when you have the right people in the right places – if you have a continuum of expertise.”  Human capital proves to be essential for innovation and worthy of celebration.

Interested in Learning More?

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