The biodesign or breeding of plants will fundamentally alter the production of food and fiber and minimize adverse impacts on the environment that are associated with production agriculture, such as fertilizer and pesticide applications. The biodesign research area uses biotechnology approaches to improve legume crops important to the economy of Virginia (peanuts and soybeans).
The soybean project involves optimizing the composition of soybean seeds as a more nutritious feed source by improving the phosphorus and mineral availability in the seeds. Improved nutrient management can greatly reduce the cost of livestock production and also prevents environmental pollution, which is of particular consequence to Chesapeake Bay watersheds. The studies on peanuts are aimed at enhancing their disease resistance, thus reducing economic losses caused by several devastating diseases that had a disastrous effect on the peanut production in Virginia’s Tidewater region.
Bioprocessing is the process whereby biological materials, such as plants, animals, and their derivatives, are converted into biofuels and other value-added products using biological agents (e.g., living microbes, enzymes).
The biofuels project will solve two of the most important challenges associated with the cost-efficient production of ethanol from lignocellulose, such as corn stover and switch grass: the breakdown of cell-wall components and the generation of high-yield hydrogen from plant sugars. Overcoming these challenges and finding ways to utilize the entire plant, while leaving the kernels as food, will facilitate the production of ethanol from less costly, more abundant feedstock. Additionally, it will promote rural economies and decrease the impact of ethanol production on the food supply. Chemical engineering design principles are integrated with protein biochemistry, microbiology, and modern biotechnology in this project.
The wildlife physiological ecology and ecotoxicology group studies the physiological ecology of vertebrates and how human-caused disturbances alter the ability of these organisms to interact appropriately with their environment. Endpoints measured include changes in feeding, stress hormone levels, energy allocation, reproductive success, and measures of performance.
The research aids in understanding how a changing global environment affects the health of declining wildlife groups, such as amphibians and reptiles, and provides a scientific foundation for making informed conservation decisions. Other fisheries and wildlife sciences research underway focuses on ecology and conservation of stream fishes, watershed and riparian management, forestry and fishery interactions, and the conservation of international fish populations. The geography group is analyzing sediments in lakes to reconstruct environmental history and determine if that might help scientists predict climate changes.
The forestry genetics group uses molecular biology and genomics tools to study the development and physiology of trees. One research project deciphers the genetic pathways that allow trees to delay the onset of flowering for years to decades – a stark contrast to annual, herbaceous plants that flower and complete their life cycle in less than one year. Ultimately, researchers want to use this knowledge to be able to control flowering in trees. For example, a method to induce flowering "on demand" could dramatically speed breeding of superior trees for various purposes, such as enhanced wood quality and biomass for bioenergy and bio-based materials. Other forestry-related research examines forest hydrology, soils, nutrition, and eco-physiology with a focus on carbon sequestration.
The vector-borne disease research group is looking for innovative ways to control insects that spread human and animal diseases. The National Institute of Health and Gates Millennial Foundation-funded project has as its main goal the discovery of improved insecticides that are able to kill mosquitoes and are affordable in the developing world. Computer modeling information will be used to combine chemicals with the target protein in new ways, so that there is a deadly effect on the mosquito, but not humans. Finding a selective chemical will be a vast improvement over some currently-used broadband insecticides. If a chemical is found that is safe to humans and effective on mosquitoes in the laboratory, it will be tested in the field by researchers in Kenya, Africa.
Plants can be infected by a wide variety of disease-causing pathogens (e.g., molds and mildews), often with devastating effects on agricultural productivity. Several research groups at Virginia Tech are conducting research on the genetic basis of disease resistance and susceptibility in plants. Genetic and genome-scale approaches are being used to understand the function and evolution of genes that enable plants to resist pathogens. Pathogen genes that counteract plant defenses and promote disease are also being studied. This research will provide new fundamental insights into plant-pathogen "arm’s races" that can be translated into novel strategies for the cost-effective, environmentally sustainable control of crop diseases.
The soils group conducts research into fundamental soil processes for the development of management practices that support sustainable soil use in both rural and urban environments. Project areas include the land reclamation from construction and mining activities; recycling of biosolids and manures to efficiently utilize nutrients and maintain soil organic matter levels; potentially toxic heavy metal reactions in soils; and essential plant nutrient resources for sustainable and efficient crop production. All programs are concerned with water quality, as soils serve as the major filter for ground water, and impact our need for food, fiber, energy and clean water and air. For example, nitrogen cycling in soils is being studied to develop more efficient fertilization practices; recycle nitrogen from organic wastes without adverse environmental impacts; and provide basic data to support nutrient trading programs between point and non-point pollution sources. Sustainable agricultural and urban ecosystems are the goal of the soils research group.