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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Innovation Campus will link academia, industry and government in "the first meaningful step" toward getting shared biotechnology breakthroughs from the laboratory to farmers anmad fields.

"I think this will have to be the model, not just for UNL, but for most campuses," Sally Mackenzie told those gathered for an international Water for Food conference in Lincoln Monday.

Mackenzie, director of the university's Center for Plant Science Innovation, was a featured speaker at the three-day event focused on wise use of water at a time when the world's population is growing rapidly and the water supply isn't.

Moving the Nebraska State Fair to Grand Island is the first step in converting the fairgrounds in Lincoln into a public-private research partnership that can expand food potential.

In keeping with the theme of the event, Mackenzie offered a wish list for crops that included modifying plant structure to increase water efficiency. But she said the current contribution of university researchers to that cause leaves a lot to be desired.

That's largely because it's "enormously expensive" to get new research to the point of commercialization under circumstances in which two and sometimes three federal agencies do case-by-case reviews of results.

"This process excludes public sector researchers" and offers "very little incentive in the university system" to take findings beyond laboratory settings, Mackenzie said.

In a climate of limitation, "most universities don't educate or motivate their faculties that way."

Pairing university efforts with such prominent profit-oriented companies as Monsanto and Dupont offers a much better chance of advancing actual food production.

"Being able to take things all the way to commercialization is quite a challenge," she said.

At the conference Tuesday, Monsanto's chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, will step to the podium to describe its progress toward drought-tolerant crops and other magnifiers of food production.

St. Louis-based Monsanto is widely regarded as the world's leading biotech company, and Fraley said in an interview Monday that the water-food connection is important in the United States and globally.

"It's an area that a lot of folks are focusing on and working in."

Since his days growing up on an Illinois farm in the 1970s, Fraley said, average corn yields have grown from 75 bushels an acre to 165.

Along the way, the first genetically enhanced corn offered protection against corn borer caterpillars in 1996.

"Today much of the corn planted in Nebraska has three genes" altered to offer advantages in insect and weed control.

"And some of it, this spring, is actually going to have eight traits."

Monsanto's march toward genetically enhanced drought tolerance, regarded as within reach by 2012-13, depends, in part, on findings at its new Water Utilization Center at Gothenburg.

Compared to advances in controlling insects and weeds, "drought tolerance is more complicated science," Fraley said, "but it's probably even more important and valuable to farmers."

It's an exciting time to be a crop researcher, he said.

"I think we're living, probably, in the most prolific time in terms of scientific advancement of agriculture."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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