WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on March 30 announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will invest more than $5.2 million to support nanotechnology research at 11 universities.

The universities are expected to use the funds to research ways nanotechnology may be used to improve food safety, enhance renewable fuels, increase crop yields, manage agricultural pests and more. The awards were made through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), a competitive, peer-reviewed grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences.

The Food and Drug Administration has described nanotechnology as an evolving technology that allows scientists to create, explore and manipulate materials on a scale measured in nanometers — particles so small that they cannot be seen with a regular microscope. The technology has a broad range of potential applications, such as the packaging of food.

U.S. universities receiving funding include Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama; Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Connecticut; University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida; University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia; Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa; University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts; Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia; and University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin.

Each university plans to use the funds for a range of research. At Auburn University, proposed plans include improved pathogen monitoring throughout the food supply chain by creating a user-friendly system that may detect multiple foodborne pathogens simultaneously, accurately, cost effectively and rapidly.

The AFRI is the flagship competitive grant program administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Established under the 2008 farm bill, the AFRI supports work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; bioenergy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities. Since the AFRI’s creation, the NIFA has awarded more than $89 million to solve challenges related to plant health and production; $22 million of this has been dedicated to nanotechnology research. The president’s 2017 budget request proposes to fully fund AFRI for $700 million.