Where’s the Science? In the Lab, Field and Home

What does N.C. State do at the N.C. Research Campus? How does the science impact people in everyday life? Why does research into plants and human health matter? We get these types of questions from time to time at the Plants for Human Health Institute, and our new interactive exhibit helps provide answers to these and other important questions that sometimes puzzle the public.

PHHI researchers elucidate and enhance the health-protective value of food crops, like fruits and vegetables, and work to increase the economic impact of North Carolina agriculture. It’s a broad and dynamic effort, which can span the spectrum from seed development and phytochemical exploration to plant breeding and postharvest evaluation. In addition, PHHI is unique in that it houses a group of N.C. Cooperative Extension faculty that support the institute’s efforts and help deliver resources to growers and the public.

In general, the institute’s work can be organized into three categories or target areas: the lab, field and home. The new PHHI exhibit addresses each of these areas with educational, interactive resources that will immerse visitors in the science and real-world applications of our research.

In the Lab

PHHI researchers delve deep into plant cells to explore their functions, the paths taken to develop important compounds and, ultimately, how plants like fruits and vegetables interact with the human body to provide health benefits when consumed.

Visitors to the interactive exhibit can place plant or even human cells under the microscope and discover why some roads to better human health and nutrition aren’t navigable with the naked eye.

In the Field

It’s tough to work with fresh produce – much less¬†enhance the health-protective value of fruits and vegetables – without spending time in a farm field or greenhouse. Field trials are an integral part of the program’s efforts to better understand the role plants play in human health.

PHHI researchers plant, grow and harvest crops like broccoli, cabbage and strawberry. We want growers in North Carolina to produce the best fruits and vegetables for their markets, which involves the development of superior varieties as well as the delivery of cutting-edge, research-based production practices.

A video greets exhibit visitors with an overview of the institute and work being done in the field.

In the Home

At the end of the day, PHHI’s primary goal is to enhance human health. The research in the lab and in the field exists to provide people with information and products that will lead to happier, healthier lives at home.

Education and outreach is key as we disseminate findings and inform consumers. For example, visitors to the interactive exhibit will learn how the color of a fruit or vegetable provides much more than a pretty package. Each color group of fruits and vegetables can be raised to reveal a list of compounds and health benefits contained within.

The colors, or pigments, in fresh produce come from powerful phytochemicals (health-promoting plant compounds) that each convey a versatile and valuable set of benefits. Beta-carotene gives produce like cantaloupes, carrots and sweet potatoes their orange color. The body quickly converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is key for good vision, strong immunity and overall health. (Read Red, White and Blue: The Colors of Healthy Produce for more information on this topic.)

Look for the portable PHHI exhibit at events like the N.C. State Fair and industry conferences, as we increase awareness and ignite interest in our dynamic research endeavors and discoveries involving fresh produce and human health. When not on the road, the exhibit will remain on display in the Plants for Human Health Institute building at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Tours can be requested by completing the PHHI Tour Request Form.

Writer: Justin Moore