Jozef Kokini's description of the ways nanotechnology can be utilized in food science and agriculture is reminiscent of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage in which a specially designed nuclear submarine and a team of researchers are miniaturized and injected into a patient's bloodstream. But Kokini is talking about real science, not fiction.
"Nanotechnology has already found applications in pharmaceutical delivery systems and building better IT chips. Now we're bringing agriculture into the arena," said Kokini, University of Illinois associate dean of research in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).
Instead of a mini-submarine sailing through a human vein, Kokini describes how nanoparticles carry nutrients through the roots of a corn plant.
"Corn growers will be able to encapsulate nutrients in nanoparticles," he said. "The particles can be tagged with molecules that attach to the root system and receive signals from the plant to release nitrogen as it is needed in the plant's life span. So, instead of applying nitrogen and phosphorus in a brute-force sort of way, in using nanotechnology more of the nitrogen added to the soil is released when the plant needs it, avoiding over-fertilizing and reducing the cost of the applications while increasing the effectiveness of the nutrients."
Kokini served as one of the USDA's advisors on nanotechnology. He is particularly excited about the recently created research center at the University of Illinois in partnership with the National Science Foundation called the Center for Agricultural, Biomedical, and Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology (CABPN).
The center is actually an industry-university cooperative research center grant. At least 12 companies commit to a $25,000 annual membership fee, and the National Science Foundation adds an additional $125,000.
"Normally, you need a minimum of two universities to establish a center, but Illinois managed to get commitments from 14 companies on its own," Kokini said. "So the University of Illinois is the only university to have a center on its own."
The College of ACES and the U of I College of Engineering will collaborate on proposals for research projects in the center. Representatives from each of the member companies serve on a board that reviews all of the proposals and selects which ones will be funded and at what level.
"Clearly scientific merit will be part of the selection process as well as the relevance of the project," Kokini said.
"The member companies will have a collective vote for which projects receive funding. ACES and the College of Engineering will collaborate to develop projects that can benefit more than one company."
Brian Cunningham from the College of Engineering is the director of CABPN, and Irfan Ahmad from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in ACES is co-principal investigator and the industry liaison in charge of organizing industrial support for the new center.
"This is a natural fit for our institution because of our prominence in both agriculture and engineering," said Robert Hauser, dean of the College of ACES. "The collaboration between ACES and the College of Engineering has gotten us off to a great start, and I believe that this partnership will create a leading research program in many areas of nanotechnology."
Kaustubh Bhalerao, an assistant professor in ACES' Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, is anticipating potential research projects in CABPN. "We have current projects using nanotechnology to develop the next generation of agricultural chemicals," he said.
"We've also been working in the area of understanding the environmental impact of nanotechnology, which will be important in determining judicious use in the future. As we continue to understand living systems at the scale of the biological molecule, it makes sense that any desire to manipulate these tiny systems would require tools that are correspondingly small. This intersection between nanoscale devices and living systems will be foundational to revolutions in bio-based technologies."
Kokini described examples of how nanotechnology can be utilized in animal digestion for livestock and how nanosensors might be used in a corn or soybean field.
"Microfluidic devices are already being used to locate a single cancer cell in humans," he said. "With a 'lab on a chip', you can take the DNA and RNA out of that cell and diagnose cancer. In agricultural research, we want to be able to isolate the RNA and DNA from a cell of a leaf. Using a grid of micro-fluidity devices in a field, famers will be able to monitor the health of the plants and make corrections during the plants' development. The key will be to make it producible and affordable."