Harkamal Walia - Wheat Research

Harkamal Walia and Jaspreet Kaur Sandhu, a graduate research assistant, measure the carbon being expired by a head of wheat. Walia's research involves measuring the amount of energy a plant uses at night and the relationship how increasing temperatures forces plants to spend less energy producing grain. 

Have you ever wondered what it takes to patent an invention?

Three new agricultural inventions by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently resulted in U.S. patents issued for projects involving soybean oil and drought-tolerant plants.

Two of the patents are for producing higher yield in soybean oil for baking and margarine, other oils produce biodiesel and fuel for the jet fuel market.

“We are thrilled when a UNL scientist gains a patent for an invention,” said Michael Boehm, UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources vice chancellor. “It’s especially gratifying when these new inventions could benefit our agricultural industry in Nebraska and other ag states.”

The University of Nebraska system was ranked in late June among the top 100 academic institutions worldwide in earning U.S. patents, with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granting the University of Nebraska 44 patents in 2019. A recently released report from the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association lists the NU system as tied at a prestigious number 65.

One of the three patents evolved when a UNL researcher discovered a gene to increase root biomass under drought stress, which can now be used to create crops with improved drought tolerance and sustain yields in sub-optimal conditions.

“My lab is interested in understanding how crops respond to water limitations,” said Harkamal Walia, UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture associate professor. “One of my studies was conducted with a doctorate student, Dante Placido, who examined how genes are affected by drought and their roots. He identified and used genomics resources for finding the gene.

Walia, who was the advisor on the gene research team with Placido, said that using a biotechnology approach, Placido was able to find a plant type for a wheat line that is water stress-tolerant. Using a combination of techniques including root phenotyping, whole plant physiology and functional genomics, the inventors identified root traits and their underlying gene.

The road to the patent was neither inexpensive nor quick — but worth it.

“We were very excited, and also very surprised that even when there is no water stress, the seeds were bigger,” Walia said. “To determine the technology potential, we worked closely with the lawyers and it took about four years to get the patent accepted by the U.S. Patent Office.”

Walia’s process began in 2014. The patent was granted in 2019.

UNL works directly with their technology transfer office, NUtech Ventures — a non-profit affiliate of the University of Nebraska, part of the university’s economic development team — to patent inventions and license the patents to companies to make beneficial products. Legal expenses and patent office fees for a U.S. patent are often at least $15,000

“Our professional team works with UNL inventors to determine if we might be able to patent the new technologies, and whether there’s a commercial market that would lead to licensing the inventions from the university,” said Brad Roth, Nutech Venures executive director.

UNL researchers also genetically modified soybeans to alter the oil’s fatty acid properties for potential use in margarine and baking oils, detergents, soaps, cosmetics, shampoos and shaving products. By producing 30% higher saturated fatty acids compared to 10% in current varieties, the benefits were higher yields and more cost effective production.

The third ag-related patent could benefit the jet fuel industry. Researchers engineered existing oilseed crops to produce seed oils rich in short and medium chain fatty acids with biofuel functionality. High yield of this technology could lead to a reduction in biofuel production cost and increase sustainability of biofuel feedstock.

“Nebraska is consistently ranked among the top 50 agricultural universities in the entire world,” said UNL Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, in a statement. “This ranking is confirmation of what I’ve known for a very long time — that Nebraska is home to a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. It shows that our faculty rank among the best in the world at transferring their cutting-edge research and creative activity to the marketplace.”

For more information, visit http://cropstressgenomics.org/ and NUtechventures.org/.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.  

Amy Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in North Central Kansas. She's also a meteorologist and storm chaser. Amy can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.