MIDDLETON — When the Monsanto Company donated its Middleton research and development facility to UW-Madison in 2017, the now Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center became the largest public plant transformation facility in the world. If an identical facility were built today on the UW campus, it would cost an estimated $50 to $70 million, making it a unique resource for both industry and the university.

“There’s a lot of rich history in agriculture technology and biotechnology at this facility,” said Mike Petersen, Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center associate director.

Petersen, who has been working at the facility for 30 years, has led over 500 tours, including one tour on Nov. 15 when members of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board of directors walked through the center — the first time for the majority of the members.

The center was opened in 1981 and was known as Cetus of Madison, Inc., overseen by former UW-Madison emeritus professor Winston Brill and owned by Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, Calif. The company solely operated the facility until 1984, when Cetus Corp. sold half of its interest in Cetus of Madison, Inc. to the WR Grace Co., morphing the name of the facility to Agracetus, Inc., a combination of both companies’ names.

Interest in biotechnology continued to grow into the early 1980s, when the focus of the facility evolved into inventing and innovating ways to introduce genes into plants to make them better. In 1986, the electric “gene gun” was invented at the facility, a piece of equipment that produced a fourth the power of a bolt of lightning to transform a water droplet into a shock wave that drove DNA-coated micro-particles of gold into plant tissue. A few years after its invention, the gene gun was used to create the first genetically transformed soybeans.

“It was straight out of a Frankenstein movie,” Petersen said, adding that the original gene gun is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, showcasing the country’s advances in biotechnology.

In 1990, WR Grace Co. acquired full ownership of Agracetus and began researching DNA vaccines with their improved gene gun. The company began researching products under contract within the industry, including a partnership with the Monsanto Company which resulted in the production of their Roundup Ready Soybeans — the first big commercial transgenic, or genetically modified, product.

In 1996, soon after several innovations were developed there, the Monsanto Company acquired the facility, with a focus over the next 20 years on soybean and cotton transformation. Other research and development done by Monsanto at this facility included corn, canola, wheat, rice and alfalfa transformation, gene expression, molecular testing and seed chipping/genotyping.

In fact, the first seed chipper ever made was developed by Monsanto at this facility in collaboration with work done at their main site in St. Louis, Mo., in 2003. This patented piece of technology enables testing of genetic traits before the seed is even planted, which was a “boom for Monsanto,” said Petersen.

Monsanto decided to consolidate several of their sites across the U.S. in 2015, closing the Middleton location in 2016. Negotiations began with the University of Wisconsin, with Monsanto generously donating the facility and all of its equipment to University Research Park and UW-Madison.

The Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center is now funded by the UW, with funding committed for the next four years. Services offered include plant transformation and editing, helping both private and public entities that need to insert traits into plants and need genetic plant research conducted. The most commonly studied plants at the facility include soybeans, maize, sorghum, cowpeas, tobacco/tobacco chloroplast and brachypodium, a grass species.

The facility also includes 23 greenhouses, offering 26,000 square feet of greenhouse space for the needs of their clientele. The greenhouses are highly automated, including the watering, with two greenhouses serving as nurseries for plant specimens started in the lab.

Future services may be added with hopes that the center will continue to grow; however, manpower is a limitation to how much can be offered at this time. There are currently 14 full time employees at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center; graduate and post doctorate students also conduct work there, and high school students interested in a career in biotechnology often job shadow to learn more about the industry.

While there is an approximately six month queue at the facility, the fairly quick turnaround for research and development, typically between six and seven months, makes the facility unique, Petersen said. The center’s clients reach many areas of the globe — exploring plant gene functions to tackle some of the world’s problems such as population growth, world hunger, climate instability and sustainability concerns.

For more information on the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center, including how farmers can reach out and share input on their genetic crop needs or wants, please visit https://cropinnovation.cals.wisc.edu or call 608-262-6900.