A new, $10 million plant research lab could help the University of Wisconsin further its research on genetically modified organisms and agricultural production.

Monsanto, a company working on agricultural biotechnology, donated the lab to UW earlier this month. Monsanto and UW have a shared history in agricultural research. In the early 1980s, the university opened a scientific research laboratory for plant and agricultural research through Monsanto, which has also helped fund several of UW’s projects, Michael Peterson, Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center director said. 

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The company focuses on producing more fruits and vegetables while simultaneously saving natural resources. In early 2016, Monsanto closed its Middleton branch but continued to run its lab until it donated it to UW, Monsanto spokesperson Samantha Demille said. UW is now responsible for keeping Monsanto’s “legacy” in plant research alive while expanding the university’s own innovation, she said.

“Monsanto donated the facility in order to further cultivate plant research and give UW the opportunity to continue this work,” Demille said.

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Before the donation, UW was working with only a few hundred genes, but now has an opportunity to expand that dimension to thousands, Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center Associate Director Michael Peterson said. He said there is a “strong call” to study gene function in plants now more than ever before. The lab’s research will specifically focus on plant genes that could affect yield, molecular biology and plant imaging, he said. Plant imaging allows researchers to take a deeper look at plant structure.

UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch said in a statement Monsanto’s gift will give UW an edge in the public sector.

“We can now leverage the diverse strengths of UW–Madison’s plant science community, allowing us to more deeply explore plant gene function and to collaborate with partners around the world to improve crop traits,” VandenBosch said.

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The new lab is going to become the hub for the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center, Demille said. Monsanto’s 100,000-square-feet donation will add to the center’s world-class plant research facilities. Peterson said his 30-year experience working with Monsanto has also encouraged a number of the company’s employees to engage in research at UW.

For now, UW will only work with nonprofits and small startups, but could allow private businesses to conduct research in the future as well. Peterson said these businesses would have to pay a fee.

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Peterson expects students to play a key role in UW’s research at the new lab. The students will have the opportunity to work alongside employees who are experts in this type of research. Internships are also a future possibility, he said.

“[The new lab] opens up a huge amount of doors [for UW],” Peterson said.