$20 million U science facility opens in St. Paul

The Microbial and Plant Genomics building is the first of its kind at a U.S. public research university, and is part of a planned biotechnology precinct on the St. Paul campus.

Branden Peterson

Forget about the robots, supercomputers and state-of-the-art research set for the new 64,000-square-foot Cargill building for Microbial and Plant Genomics opening today on the St. Paul campus.

Inspirations for scientific ideas and theories are not likely growing out of computers – but instead from red-marker “doodling” on tabletop white boards implanted in coffee bars in the building.

“As great as all the high-tech stuff is, science in its root is in between people’s ears,” said College of Biological Sciences Dean Robert Elde. “This happens by people sitting in a place like this and doodling out the next great idea.”

The first of its kind at a U.S. public research university, the building is the result of collaboration among more than a dozen research groups from several University colleges for work in biology, ecology, medicine, agriculture and animal health.

Research in the new building will include developing disease and drought-resisting plants and determining new ways to keep animals and humans healthy.

Genomics is the study of all genes in an organism. In the new building, research will be focused on genes of microbes and plants.

The bioscience facility is only the first of what will become a biotechnology precinct, which could include as many as 12 new buildings in the next 15 years.

Academic interest in genomics and biotechnology is growing. Elde said the University hopes to lead the way, though competition with West Coast universities is expected.

Financing will be crucial to the progress of the proposed precinct.

The Microbial and Plant Genetics building was made possible by a $10 million donation by the Cargill Foundation, and was later matched by the state of Minnesota to pay for the $20 million facility.

The second facility of the precinct could be a biotechnology incubator facility plotted for construction south of the Cargill building. Xcel Energy donated $2 million to the project and funds are still being raised.

“Genetics has and will continue to have a greater role in the future,” said Ron Phillips, director of the Center for Microbial and Plant Genomics.

The new facility provides a rare opportunity to bring plant and microbial researchers together who would otherwise work in separate laboratories, said Dean Charles Muscoplat of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science.

Because research in genomics has been subject to scrutiny, the new facility is designed to provide people questioning research ethics a chance to physically look through windows.

The main entrance to the building is mostly made of windows.

“I call it openness,” Phillips said. “When we first started with architects Ö the idea of windows was to express this is open and transparent and there’s no research going on behind a fortress of wall. We hope the design promotes this effort.”

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]