MTSU launches ginseng program

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MTSU’s Ginseng Initiative to grow and harvest the plant at the university’s Experiential Learning and Research Center in Lascassas, Tenn., will boost state revenue and potentially take years off the growing process, officials said Wednesday.

Joined by state Sen. Bill Ketron, who suggested the university grow ginseng at its 438-acre farm, MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee announced the research partnership between a group led by Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research Director Elliot Altman, Farm Laboratories Director Matthew Wade and School of Agribusiness and Agriscience Director Warren Gill.

“This is a great opportunity,” Ketron told the crowd assembled near the student gardens. “… It is up to us to take it to the next level. We can make this a statewide cash crop. There’s no reason we can’t make it a cash crop and make this a world-class facility.”

Ginseng, which has a value of $500 to $800 or more, is used as a natural supplement or over-the-counter remedy to stimulate the immune system. Primary users are people with colds or flu and cancer patients and in these situations boosting the immune system makes a lot of sense.

Jai Templeton, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said just the fact research is getting underway adds to its value for the state economy.

“We know the value,” Templeton said. “We’re always looking for new ways to create revenue. This research plot here very well could be the beginning of a high-dollar crop for Tennessee.

State Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, delivered what he called “high-dollar seeds” from East Tennessee that he handed to Ketron for planting.

McPhee said the partnership between MTSU and Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in Nanning, China, have yielded about 40 results “showing promise in treating cancer, viral infections and other ailments.”

Biology professor Bruce Cahoon said plant tissue culture, which is called micropropagation by scientists, “will allow us to produce hundreds of plants from a single piece of tissue and is beneficial when attempting to propagate plants that reproduce slowly, like ginseng.”

“We plan to take cuttings from ginseng plants and treat them with a nutrient-rich broth and hormones to encourage growth of undifferentiated cells,” Cahoon added. “These cells will lose their identity and can become any type of plant tissue (leaves, roots, stems or embryos). We will treat the undifferentiated tissue with hormones to induce the production of ginseng embryos. Each embryo can then be grown into a whole plant that can be cultivated at the Guy James Farm.”

Officials said increased security measures will be implemented at the farm.

Farm Laboratories Director Matthew Wade said several options are being considered for tighter security measures to protect both the student gardens and ginseng areas and the entire 438-acre farm. One involves knowing when students, faculty and staff are present. The second involves physical security measures.

Earlier in the afternoon, Altman led a group through the current research facilities in Davis Science Building. College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Bud Fischer later took them on a brief tour of the university’s new $147 million Science Building, which is scheduled to open in early 2015.
Ginseng is found only in the Northern Hemisphere, in North America and in eastern Asia, and typically in cooler climates.

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