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The Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research is a renowned research and education organization currently located on the campus of Cornell Universitymarker in Ithaca, New Yorkmarker. A Board of Directors, half appointed by Cornell, governs this independent institution addressing plant research.
BTI Main Entrance, Cornell University campus

History

William Boyce Thompson, who has built his fortune from the copper mining industry, had visited Russia in 1917 and saw the inability of the new democracy to feed the hungry. In 1920, he decided to establish an institute for plant research. Its purpose would be to study "why and how plants grow, why they languish or thrive, how their diseases may be conquered, how their development may be stimulated by the regulation of the elements which contribute to their life." Thompson hoped that the study of plants would result in practical, substantial contributions to human welfare. Thompson realized that the growing population of the United States would need a larger food supply. The study of plant diseases and the development of cures for them, the creation through genetic research of hardier, more nutritious, disease-resistant crop plants and more viable seeds, the study of insects that damage food crops, and the production of new pesticides all would contribute to this goal. Conservation would be another goal: "Men were too prone in America to destroy vegetation, especially forests and grazing surfaces", he said. "They must learn now to conserve." The effect of industrial pollutants on plants and the development of methods to protect plants would be studied. Thompson expected the institute to make valuable contributions to general scientific knowledge, to biology, and to medicine.

Thompson and named the institute in honor of his parents, Anne Boyce Thompson and William Thompson, and endowed it with $10 million. He hoped that this seed money would enable the institute to acquire the very best scientists, equipment, and supplies and then to develop relationships with industry and the government to help finance research. The licensing of institute patents with companies has helped balance funding during years of lean government support. Thompson believed that commerce and industry are beneficial to society and that commercial development of research results would spread the institute's discoveries.

Although Thompson was encouraged to affiliate his project with a major university, he wanted to play an active role, and in 1924, Thompson built the initial laboratories across the street from his country estate Alder Manor, in Yonkers, New Yorkmarker. The Georgian Revival laboratory building was designed by architect Frank Arnold Colby and built by the J. G. White Engineering Corporation, engineers and contractors, of New York City. It is constructed of reinforced concrete with a Flemish Bond brick veneer and is attached to a series of greenhouses on the south end, which were part of the original construction.

BTI remained on its Yonkers campus until the 1970s when Yonkers property taxes and urban pollution posed major problems. Managing Director George L. McNew favored an affiliation with a major research university, and soon a bidding war broke out between Oregon State Universitymarker and Cornell University to attract BTI. The New York State Legislature wanted to keep BTI in New York and appropriated $8.5 million for construction of facilities on the Cornell campus if BTI agreed to stay. Oregon also appropriated funds as a relocation incentive. Ultimately, it was decided that affiliation with Cornell offered the most varied research opportunities.

In 1978 a new building designed by Ulrich Franzen was built next to the Cornell Veterinary School, and the move was made. Although affiliated with Cornell, the institute maintains its independence with a separate endowment, Board of Directors, business office, and employee benefits program. Close ties between BTI and Cornell foster many collaborative relationships that are beneficial to both institutions.

The old BTI campus in Yonkers was leased out and actively used as late as 1997, and was acquired by the City of Yonkers / Board of Education in 1999. Its fate is now being litigated as to whether it will be redeveloped as low-income housing or commercial purposes.

Programs

BTI has 12 faculty investigators conducting plant research and training graduate students and post doctoral fellows. The Scientist magazine survey of post doctoral fellows ranked BTI the 12th best place to work. For example, BTI is part of the consortium that is sequencing the tomato genome and creating a database of genomic sequences and information on the tomato and related plants.

Each summer, BTI's 10-week Plant Genome Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program offers undergraduates selected nationally to conduct individual research.

BTI also leads after-school science enrichment programs at local grade schools.

Discoveries

Basic Biology Discoveries

  • Discovered how fungal spores can inhibit their own germination. This knowledge made it possible to produce spores more efficiently and in higher quantities in the laboratory, which, in turn, led to advanced studies on the metabolism of germinating spores.
  • Proved that fungal pathogens (those that cause disease in plants) begin their development as a pathogen when they recognize the surface of a host plant. This knowledge may lead to innovative ways to protect plants from fungal disease through genetic modification.
  • Developed a rooting hormone now used extensively in the nursery industry to propagate plants quickly and efficiently. The hormone is a stable derivative of a natural hormone, called indole acetic acid.
  • Developed a serological procedure to identify plant viruses that is now used worldwide.
  • Discovered that the genome of a plant virus is divided into two parts.
  • Developed advanced techniques in paper and column chromatography for separating and identifying the biological components of mixtures.
  • Discovered that insects can become addicted to certain constituents in food plants. This knowledge, which helps explain why some insects feed only on specific plants, may lead to new kinds of insect-resistant plants and a reduction in the use of insecticides.
  • Discovered insect viral enzymes, which can be used to overcome an insects intestinal immune system. This advance has led to new concepts in animal-specific viral adaptations.
  • Established insect cell lines, which are acknowledge as superior for the production of viral pesticides and recombinant proteins. One cell line called High Five is used worldwide for the production of human therapeutics and vaccines.
  • Developed an assay (test) to determine the presence of tobacco mosaic virus in a plant a discovery that, in turn, led to the ability to detect and determine the amount of other pathogenic viruses of plants.
  • Discovered that insects are vectors that carry disease-causing pathogens from plant to plant and that plant pathogens multiply using the insect as a host. These discoveries led to new ways to control plant diseases.


Agricultural Discoveries

  • Discovered the biological and chemical basis for selectivity in herbicides and developed the first herbicide that could control specific weeds without harming other plants.
  • Proved that ethylene, a natural product produced by plants, is a hormone. Ethylene, which encourages ripening in fruit and vegetables, is now used throughout the food processing industry.
  • Identified sex pheromones in bark beetles that make it possible to control these pests without chemical insecticides.


Environmental Discoveries

  • Developed computer modeling techniques for predicting forest growth/decline over long periods of time.
  • Contributed to PCB decontamination of the Hudson River by developing ecologically important data on the plant and animal life of the region.
  • Contributed to the development of EPA ambient air quality standards for ozone by providing data and information concerning the impact of ozone on U.S. crops.
  • Formulated worldwide air quality standards for fluorides, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
  • Developed analytical methods now accepted as the global standard for detecting fluorides in biological materials and monitoring fluorides in the air.
  • Generated data used by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program to evaluate the biological impact of ozone and acid rain.
  • Developed first computer models for testing the combined effect of ozone and acid rain on mature forests.
  • Developed a computer software package that enables the EPA to evaluate ozone injury to U.S. forests.


Human Health Discoveries

  • Discovered the role of a naturally occurring substance, called sugar-glass, that stabilizes dry, stored seeds. This discovery led to new technology for stabilizing insulin, enabling it to be delivered to diabetics through an inhalable dry aerosol spray instead of injection.
  • Discovered that vaccines against human diseases can be delivered orally through food and that plant-delivered vaccines are effective in protecting people against disease.
  • Developed modified plants that deliver "edible vaccines" against three human diseases, including hepatitis B.


Notes



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