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Many who follow Michigan State University may be aware of lofty rankings in such areas as nuclear physics, K-12 education and supply chain management. But they may not know that MSU is also an international powerhouse in the plant sciences.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Brad Day, associate department chair for research in the MSU Dept. of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, I learned that MSU has over 150 faculty engaged in plant science research, with as many as 20 new hires on the near horizon.

And, for Day, what is especially noteworthy is not so much the size of the plant science cadre, but that “we are committed to and working toward the same goals: to provide healthy food, nutritious food, and food security” for a growing world population.

“By 2050, we will be approaching 10 billion people on the planet, and they need to be fed,” he says. “In order to meet that challenge, we will need to produce twice as much food as we do now.”

Day, a plant pathologist whose work is funded, in part, by MSU AgBioResearch, is engaged in interdisciplinary research focused on identifying and remediating plant pathogens that cause an estimated $60 billion in lost production annually, just in the U.S.

“I am working with faculty in engineering, medicine, and many other disciplines to better understand the increased virulence we are finding in the viruses, bacteria, fungi and other pathogens that infect plants.” One project, for example, is the development of handheld biosensors that agricultural producers can use in the field to help detect disease outbreaks early on.

“We are very proud of our leadership around the world, but with that reputation comes great responsibility.”

“Within 10-15 minutes, we can get a reading on a plant here in the U.S. or in Africa or Asia—a lot like an insulin test or a pregnancy test.” That information would then go into a database that could be accessed by experts across the globe who could then provide advice on how that individual grower might treat the infestation.

For Day, one of the greatest rewards of his research has been to witness, firsthand, MSU’s lofty reputation in distant lands. “Over many decades, MSU has established connections all over the globe, and it is amazing when you get off a plane halfway around the world, wearing the block S, and people greet you like some kind of celebrity.”

“We are very proud of our leadership around the world, but with that reputation comes great responsibility.”

Day emphasizes that MSU’s strength in the plant sciences is the direct result of strong and enduring partnerships. “We have had generous and long-term support not only from the MSU administration, but from the state, the federal government and from so many in the food and agriculture industry—support which has allowed us to continue raise the bar in plant science research, teaching and public outreach.”

Greening of the Great Lakes airs every Sunday evening at 7:00 on News/Talk 760 WJR.

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