Agricultural research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. Courtesy of IALR.

DANVILLE — It’s just after lunch when Scott Lowman steps out of his office to give a tour of the Danville facility where he works. He pulls out bacteria samples tainted with fungus and opens a freezer capable of preserving bacteria for 100 years. 

It’s as cold as Antarctica inside. 

On the walk between labs and greenhouses Lowman connects the dots between the bacteria, the hydroponic systems and baby lettuce leaves sprouting under LED lights.

“This is important because this is the next generation of ag,” said Lowman, director of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research

“In the future, if we can use these things, we can eliminate pollution and runoff” and stop using the chemicals that have been damaging the land over the last 80 years. 

The institute opened more than a decade ago with the sole purpose of transforming the economy of southern Virginia. The work going on within the Institute — research, advanced manufacturing, education and more — will serve as the catalysts for that change. 

Lowman and his team in applied research are the scientists looking to plants to find ways to increase yields without the need for fertilizers or other chemicals. 

“We’re really a one-stop shop for indoor ag,” Lowman said.

At the institute, where state funding allows researchers to pivot quickly, it’s looking like an attainable feat. 

“We want to position ourselves to be on the leading edge. We’re doing things no one else is doing,” Lowman said.

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Analytical chemist Yimeng “Jack” He at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. Courtesy of IALR.

Analytical Chemist Yimeng “Jack” He is the bespectacled man behind the microscope. His labs break down hemp samples and then run them through rigorous testing. 

“Our primary focus is around hemp growers, but we also take care of local research groups and other small pharmaceutical companies,” He said.

Since industrial hemp production was legalized in Virginia in 2018 a growing number of farmers are trying their hand at the crop. 

“Technology is going to be the key to working this crop,” said Jason Amatucci, president of the Virginia Hemp Coalition, founded in 2012. Having access to accurate field testing so farmers can quickly identify and fix problems in the fields is essential, he said. 

Many farmers are using the analytical chemistry labs at IALR to learn the precise levels of CBD and THC in their product as well as identify possible contaminants. Cannabis plants are good at picking up ground contaminants including heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

In 2020 alone, 144 farmers came to IALR for hemp testing. 

By combining an array of scientific readings, He teaches farmers how to optimize their crops and fine-tune production. By learning the concentration of active ingredients in their product, farmers know the value of what they bring to the marketplace and that they meet regulatory guidelines. 

Farmers are “very very thankful that we’re able to sit down and explain what’s going on and all the complexities,” Lowman said.

Amatucci said the hemp industry is a complicated one to navigate.

“[The institute] is perfectly positioned to help the hemp industry.”

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Dr. Sajeewa Amaradasa conducts research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. Courtesy of IALR.

While most labs focus on pharmaceutical compounds, IALRs labs are plant-focused. 

“That’s what makes us different,” Lowman said. “Most analytical chemistry labs are set up to analyze soils or water samples. … We are really focused on the plants. Plants are very, can be very complicated to work with” because of the multitudes of factors that influence their growth from pests to light to water.

To that end the IALR’s Plant Endophyte Research Center has identified 2,000 different beneficial plant bacteria that grow inside plants. 

“These are naturally occurring. They’ve been overlooked. But now we know that they do lots of amazing things for plants. They help the plants gather nutrients to help protect plants from pathogens. They even strengthen the plant’s immune system. They lower stress levels of plants, they do everything, almost everything you think of,” Lowman said.

Those bacteria, called endophytes, have been turned into seed coatings and applied to tomato, pepper, tobacco, lettuce and strawberry seeds that Lowman’s team grows in controlled environments to determine what the endophytes can do. 

This past November, in the peer-reviewed journal Horticulturae, IALR’s scientists revealed research showing endophyte #619 increased the yield in one field by 15 % without the use of methyl bromide fumigation.  

“That’s big time for farmers because farmers have razor-thin margins,” Lowman said.

Fifty endophytes have been licensed to Indigo Ag, a company that Lowman calls “a disruptor in the field of agriculture.”

For the last two years the media company CNBC has named the Boston-based company as one of 50 “private companies aligned with the rapid pace of technological change and poised to emerge from the pandemic as the next generation of billion-dollar businesses.”

IndigoAg is testing IALR’s research with the aim of getting a product to the marketplace. 

Another company, LiveGrow Bio, will combine IALR’s endophyte research with its own patented formulation and delivery system in an effort to make a microbial biostimulant. According to a news release from IALR announcing the partnership, LiveGrow Bio will then test the produce across diverse climates, environments and soil types. If successful, the work could lead to a natural alternative to chemicals. 

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Amy Turner examples sampless to see what makes which plants grow best. Courtesy of the IALR.

In the IALR’s 9,000-square-foot Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center (which is a partnership with Virginia Tech), inoculated plants are placed in hydroponic systems, soilless production systems, vertical growing racks, trays of soil and even pots of sand. Everything is focused on high-value crops — think lettuce, herbs, strawberries, blackberries and hemp. 

Day after day, automated cameras capture every change in every plant. Over the course of just one and half weeks, the cameras generate some 75,000 plant images for analysis. Researchers analyze every aspect of the plant from the root size to growth rates.

 “There’s so little known about growing lettuces inside that this research is really valuable because companies can learn from it,” Lowman said as he sampled baby lettuce that can otherwise only be found in a high-end restaurant. 

Lowman’s labs have also begun research collaborations with AeroFarms, which built the largest indoor farm in the country in Danville. Time Magazine named AeroFarms one of the best inventions of 2019, alongside companies that recycle pollution and repurpose plastic. AeroFarms indoor vertical growing technique uses 95% less water than field farming, which could be a key to feeding the world’s growing population.

Partnerships and projects like these — with a clear path to commercial products — support the institute’s overall mission to transform the economy of southern Virginia.

And they are just one tiny part of what is happening at the institute. 

On Jan. 4, Kaylee South, assistant professor of controlled environment agriculture at Virginia Tech, joined IALR full time, with the sole purpose of furthering the plant research already happening. 

On the horizon the center looks to start using aquaponics to raise fish and then recirculating aquaculture systems to integrate plant and fish production at its partner site in Virginia Beach.

A big part of our job, Lowman said, is “to get collaborators and move the science forward.”

“To be able to change the region I’m from means a lot to me. Being part of transforming the region is important to everybody here.”

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers....