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Closure of apple salesroom opens up new opportunity

The door to the apple salesroom may have closed, but a new door is about to open that will put UConn at the epicenter of genetic research.

Taking the place of the salesroom may be a unique plant biotechnology facility that will specialize in new uses for corn. The facility, a molecular biology research laboratory, will be the only one of its kind in the United States, says Gerald Berkowitz, head of the plant science department.

The research will focus on creating new genetically engineered hybrids of corn with numerous benefits and many different applications, including human vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and biodegradable plastics.

The University's orchard and apple salesroom were closed this past summer because of administrative and financial concerns, he says.

"The prime function of the orchard and salesroom was to grow and sell apples. It was not being used as a teaching, extension or research facility," he says. "We are going to continue, of course, our strong programs in outreach and teaching, which support the state's apple producers."

Berkowitz says retirements over the past year also played a part in the closure. When one of the three technicians staffing the facility retired, a replacement was not hired because sales were so low.

"The sales at the apple salesroom covered one half of a technician's salary, a small fraction when compared with everything else," Berkowitz says. "It is difficult to justify (rehiring in) a position that is not involved in teaching or research, and there need to be three people to run the orchard."

The University is now discussing plans to turn the building into the only university-based transgenic corn research facility in the country with DeKalb Genetics, a biotechnology research facility in Mystic, he says.

DeKalb Genetics has already donated about $300,000 toward the new facility.

The Biotechnology Center and the plant science department plan to hire a new plant biotechnology scientist soon. Berkowitz says the new facility will attract researchers from around the world.

"Plans are under way right now to develop collaborations with scientists at Yale and Harvard who will make use of this technology," Berkowitz says. "Our graduate and undergraduate students will (also) be exposed to this cutting-edge technology."

The new facility is a cooperative effort of Thomas Chen, director of the Biotechnology Center, Kirklyn Kerr, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Robert Smith, vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school.

Eileen Labenski