Since first taking a job as a part-time dishwasher in a plant biology research laboratory in California, Jim Carrington has carved out an impressive career as a respected plant scientist. Now he holds the title of president of the prestigious Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.
Established in 1998, the Danforth Center is the largest independent, non-profit crop-science research center in the world, with about 300 full-time employees and an annual budget of $34 million. Carrington joined the center in 2011 and recently succeeded longtime leader Sam Fiorello.
The center was founded in 1998 by Dr. William H. Danforth and named after his father and brother. The 94-year-old Danforth, a physician, served as Chancellor or Washington University in St. Louis for 23 years, and is the brother of three-term U.S. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo. The Danforth family owned and operated the Ralston Purina Company for more than a century. The company was known for its Dog Chow and other pet food and livestock ration brands.
Carrington spoke with MFT about his career and the work done at the center, which sits on 40 acres in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur.
IFT: What led to the formation of the Danforth Center, and how is it organized?
CARRINGTON: We’re an independent, nonprofit 501c3 organization. We’re not owned by anyone and we’re not a government entity. Why would a physician found a nonprofit plant science institution? For reasons of human health and human well-being. The most impactful thing you can do for health around the world is to maintain an affordable, nutritious diet for everybody.
IFT: Plant research is a fixture at a number of institutions, including universities and in the private sector. Why is there a need for the Danforth Center?
CARRINGTON: Despite the fact that we have land-grant universities and growing companies with research efforts, plant science was still vastly underfunded compared to, say, medicine — at least 20 to one. Our founder felt that there were too many things that were underdeveloped in the plant science world.
IFT: How is the center funded?
CARRINGTON: Competitive grants represent our largest source of revenue. It’s a combination of pretty much any federal agency that supports plant science, including the National Institutes of Health, USDA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). The top three funding sources are the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That comprises around 50% of our annual revenue.
The second-largest contribution draws on our endowment. As a nonprofit we have built up an endowment over the years. It’s around 35% of our annual operating budget. It originated through the wealth of the Danforth family. The Danforth Foundation — which no longer exists as a separate entity — contributed tens of millions of dollars to get it started. Without that, it goes nowhere. We also have annual contributions from donors and some service revenue as well.
IFT: It may come as a surprise to some that the Department of Energy provides major financial support. Why is that?
CARRINGTON: Historically, DOE has viewed plants and biomass as a source of energy that warrants scientific research. That goes back decades and decades. In the 2000s there was a greater interest in plants as a source of liquid fuels. But the Department of Energy also has a lot of support for research to make both energy production and agriculture less environmentally impactful, lowering the environmental footprint of agriculture.
IFT: How much research is being done at the center, and how big are the projects?
CARRINGTON: We have something on the order of 70 to 80 funded research projects going on at any given time. There are as many as four or five scientists working on each project. We would consider a $50,000 project very modest. Some are very large — multi-million-dollar projects.
IFT: What physical facilities are available?
CARRINGTON: We have growth facilities and research greenhouses. These aren’t just tarp-covered spaces. They are temperature-controlled, light-controlled research greenhouses. Once our current construction project is done we’ll have close to 75,000 square feet of greenhouse space.
There are indoor plant facilities that have artificial lights, controlled temperature and controlled watering systems. We have 60 or so units in that category.
IFT: Specifically, what breakthroughs have scientists at the center made?
CARRINGTON: We’ve developed a lot of new technology and done a lot of research with that technology to understand how drought works, to impact the plant and how other stresses reduce plant productivity. This has involved a lot of work on evolving technology.
We’ve been very active in below-ground technologies — X-ray imaging, for example — and combined with a lot of data, science is giving us an entirely new view on how roots are interacting with soil and the roles of microbes that are present below ground and how the microbes are impacting things like drought, nutrient uptake and plant health. Gene editing is a very potent research tool.
IFT: A major component of the center is the BioResearch & Development Growth Park, commonly referred as BRDG Park. Please share what that entails.
CARRINGTON: This is a really important part of the Danforth Center. We want to get our discoveries into the hands of the private sector who can build a better product, such as better seed, microbes, cover crops or agricultural systems.
That doesn’t happen on its own. We invest in it. Part of that investment has been to designate eight acres of our 40-acre property as BRDG Park. There are two buildings that house 15 or so companies, from large multinationals like KWS to rapidly growing companies like Benson Hill to smaller innovative companies. It even includes smaller start-ups just getting out of the gate.
They can work with our scientists. If there is a collaboration that can be struck up, that’s fantastic. They have access to our core facilities, like plant-growth facilities. We don’t give those services away. We provide facilities, support personnel. In addition to weekly seminars they can participate in, we’re actually part of a larger innovation district called 39 North. The fact that a company like Benson Hill can grow to a few hundred people without having to build their own greenhouses is a huge advantage to them.