An unprecedented partnership of academic and industry organizations at the North Carolina Research Campus is launching a $1.5 million program to engage college students from across the state in a first-of-its-kind education and research endeavor – the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP).
University scientists, industry leaders and college students will team up to explore plant pathways to answer why and how plants, like fruits and vegetables, benefit human health. The project’s goal is to provide educational opportunities and create a vast knowledge base of plant pathways research.
UNC Charlotte, along with N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute and UNC General Administration, is among the academic partners that will work with industry leaders from the Murdock Research Institute, Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, General Mills and the N.C. Research Campus.
“The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project is a prime example of the power of the N.C. Research Campus,” said executive director Michael Todd. “The cutting-edge research and educational opportunities are a terrific value for the UNC system and private campus partners and demonstrates a novel, collaborative research model that will improve human health.”
The project will address an overarching theme of plant pathways, which are chemical reactions in plants that help them to survive and adapt to environmental stressors, such as disease or climate change. Each chemical reaction is called a “pathway,” because it’s the path a molecule takes when changing from one form to another. Along the road, the reaction creates a new product like amino acids or fibers. Having been created to combat health risks in plants, these newly formed compounds often are beneficial to human health when consumed.
Cory Brouwer, director of UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Research Services Division, is part of the P2EP leadership team.
“This project is already producing terabytes of data and requires bioinformatics expertise and high performance computing to do the analysis that will lead to new and exciting discoveries,” stated Brouwer, who will lead the program’s efforts to use a knowledge base to organize and analyze the extensive amounts of data generated by P2EP
He noted bioinformatics is the use of computers to help solve biological problems, and it’s also the path to optimize research efficiency in the future.
According to Brouwer, a traditional Web search engine – like Google – provides a list of sources. A knowledge base goes a step further to provide direct answers. But generating a knowledge base dedicated to plant pathways research from around the world requires compiling the data to populate it first.
“A problem for researchers today is that they’re having to do generic Web searches to compile existing research literature, which can take weeks,” said Brouwer. “Our goal is to assemble plant pathways research in a knowledge base so researchers can find information quickly and focus on the science. With the P2EP program, we’re concentrating the expertise and resources that already exist at the research campus, along with a terrific crop of science students, to gather and organize the data.”