Bridging the Divide Between Public and Private

November 28, 2016

By Echo Martin

Science does not happen at the University of Minnesota without support from intersecting industries. This support can take many forms, such as directly working with a company to release a new variety of plant into the market, or the industry lobbying to get public funding for a research area. Other times these relationships are more tangential, formed when the research experience at the University compliments the needs of an organization that may or may not have plants as its end product.

Partnership Spotlight: Pyrethrum Breeding with MGK

Pyrethrum, a member of the chrysanthemum family, is a plant that has been used in insect control for centuries, and is one of the most commonly used green pesticides in organic agriculture. Pyrethrins, the chemical family derived from pyrethrum, have been shown to be effective on ticks, bed bugs, aphids, and more. This plant isn’t new to McLaughlin Gormley King (MGK), a Minnesota-based company creating products that protect people and their environments from the impact of insects since 1902. “MGK’s reputation is based on having small family farmers in East Africa grow pyrethrum as a sustainable perennial crop that earns them additional cash,” Neil Anderson, professor and flower breeder, explains. “They’ve always had a very sustainable model and strive to produce green pesticides that are safe for humans.” MGK has a long history with the U of M, and in 2011 they met with Anderson to discuss their first major partnership with the Department of Horticultural Science.

“They approached us to help with some issues on pyrethrum through breeding,” says Anderson. “We have one of the best chrysanthemum breeding programs in the world right in their backyard, so it made sense for them to come to us.” When a company approaches a public sector breeding program, it’s often with the goal of conducting long-term visionary research. They focus on long-term goals that look at possible crop transformations either because they are necessary or because there is the potential for added value.

Though MGK approached the University, both sides benefit from this partnership. “Working with MGK gives my breeding program the chance to broaden the crops we’re working with,” says Anderson. Pyrethrum has not previously been part of the chrysanthemum breeding program, but Anderson sees a great deal of potential. “There are two species of pyrethrum, one with white flowers and the other with colored daisies. They also have very ornamental foliage that is silvery-gray in color. They could be novel options for ornamental plants.”

While both sides have something to offer in this partnership, Anderson stresses that it’s the combination of their working groups that makes this partnership really work. “What’s been critical for us is having a great team of people. They have the entomologists and the chemical extraction labs, which pairs well with what we do in breeding the flowers. We tap into their expertise and we add additional dimensions to their team.”

Get Involved

The partnership between Anderson’s breeding program and MGK is just one example of the University collaborating with industry needs. The department has expertise in a variety of fields related to horticulture, some of which are detailed below. Sometimes the best partnerships are created from looking for unusual intersections in expertise.