They don't wear suits at the office—unless they're meeting with venture capitalists. They still have offices on campus, not in a corporate tower. And they are still PhDs.
But some faculty members in the College of Agriculture have taken their science to the marketplace in start-up companies. Here are some of those whose discoveries could lead to a vast array of new natural products, open up unforeseen job opportunities, and boost the state's economy.
"Lots of people study the human genome, but the genomes of the insect world have largely been ignored," said Bruce Webb, faculty member in the College's Department of Entomology.
No longer. Some of the latest work of ParaTechs, the company Webb helped to found in 2004, is basing much of its work on the study of a particular group of insect-infecting viruses called baculoviruses.
Webb knew that baculoviruses could be used, as can bacteria and yeast, to grow the all-important proteins that are used in some natural products. Research in his lab has resulted in a way, he said, "to make that process work five or 10 times better."
The now-patented technology discovered in Webb's lab produces not one, but two proteins—one that keeps the cell alive (so it can produce more proteins) and a second protein for commercial or research use, which is good news to biomanufacturing industries.
The possibilities for use of this technology are many—lower cost protein production for vaccines and other medicines, for agriculture, and for the ever-expanding bank of proteins needed by researchers.
In other research, Webb and Indu Maiti at the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center are working on genes from an insect virus that inhibits insect growth (called a polydnavirus).
Graduate student Torrence Gill works with UK faculty member Bruce Webb in his lab.
They theorize that plants such as corn and soybeans could be modified with genes from this polydnavirus to protect them from caterpillars that feed on plants.
Their work could result in a natural, safe, and target-specific insecticide that is made by the plant. It's an option not unlike Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring bacteria that makes an insecticidal protein. Bt has been used for the past decade in corn and other crops to protect them against many insect pests.