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Lilies in the Lab

Monday, January 30, 2017
Article by: Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, University of Florida

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Jack Payne, senior vice president for 
agriculture and natural resources, 
University of Florida. 

Dr. Heqiang “Alfred” Huo is a new breed of plant breeder who will soon join the accomplished team at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

He’s among the select few who will be using the revolutionary technology known as CRISPR and applying it to lilies and orchids. The biotechnology could be a shortcut to creating the new varieties of plants that your industry depends upon.

UF/IFAS already ranks among the top three land-grant universities nationally in numbers of plant breeders, cultivars developed, and cultivars licensed for commercial propagation. Royalties from these new cultivars are six times what they were less than a decade ago, and we reinvest much of it into innovation to address your challenges.

Now we’re getting even stronger. Just in time, too, because we need a new generation of ornamentals, fruits, vegetables, and trees. Our plants face stresses that weren’t as evident 30 years ago – increased heat, sea-level rise that can lead to saltwater intrusion, migrating diseases, and a new pest arriving in Florida every month on average.

You can fight all this with more water, more nutrients, and more pesticides, all of which mean more money. But IFAS aims to save you money, time, energy,
and environmental impact by breeding plants that stand up to these stresses.

Thanks in part to the tremendous support we’ve received from FNGLA and its members, UF/IFAS has received funding to hire dozens of new research faculty. Instead of carving up this cluster of new scientists by giving each academic department a quota, we’re hiring them in teams assigned to chase a big idea.

One of those big ideas is to take UF to the next level in tropical and subtropical plant breeding. In addition to bringing Huo to our Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, we’ve brought on new talent in Homestead, Balm, and other locations. They’ll bring even more cutting-edge science to improving the plants that Florida producers already grow and to creating Florida versions of plants traditionally grown elsewhere.

Huo moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong and is currently finishing up work at the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis. He brings with him a working knowledge of CRISRR, a gene-editing technique that since its invention in 2012 has been applied to animal health, medicine, engineering new antimicrobials, controlling disease-carrying insects, and, at UF/IFAS, crop breeding.

CRISPR allows scientists to essentially trick a plant into sending itself instructions to snip out gene sequences that welcome disease into its cells, for example. And because it doesn’t involve inserting genes from other species, its creations are non-GMO, which could make them much more acceptable to consumers who are still wary of biotechnology.

Part of what sold Huo on UF/IFAS was the emphasis that our plant pathology chairwoman, Rosemary Loria, put on making scientists available to growers.

Huo says that connection to industry helps guide breeders like himself to generate varieties with specific goals. In other words, they help him form the question that his research will answer. This, combined with industry support for UF/IFAS breeding efforts, made this what Huo called “my dream place for my future research career.”

May his dreams, and yours, come true.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of IFAS. Payne can be reached at: jackpayne@ufl.edu. 

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