The nutrition and combat readiness of U.S. soldiers could receive a boost thanks to a new $6 million grant to LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center announced Wednesday.

The three-year grant project continues Pennington’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense that first began in 1988 through federal appropriation to study food issues. But with recent federal earmark cutbacks, the new funding is now coming from competitive grant successes.

The new CROWN project –—Collaborative Research to Optimize Warfighter Nutrition –—will focus on metabolism, food and hydration research to keep soldiers healthier and more fit for combat and training, lead researcher and Pennington professor Jennifer Rood said.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has helped earmark Defense Department spending to Pennington in the past, was on hand for the announcement. Referred to by her old “Military Mary” nickname, Landrieu said she encouraged the Defense Department to look hard at the Pennington application.

Landrieu also promoted Pennington’s newly revised vision to become the world’s leading research institution in chronic diseases.

“This vision is bold; it’s audacious,” Landrieu said. “But you know, it’s possible.”

As for the new grant, Pennington Executive Director Steven Heymsfield said the fitness of soldiers began declining to an extent after the Vietnam War.

“The number of people fit for military service has declined dramatically,” Heymsfield said, noting the need for Pennington’s involvement.

“That goal is to provide the scientific foundation for creating a maximally effective and healthy warfighter,” Heymsfield said.

Rood noted that Pennington has received about $42 million from the Defense Department over 23 years, including projects to develop military menus for soldiers.

The new project will allow Pennington to add about five new research jobs and maintain 20 others that were funded through expiring federal funds, she said.

Specialized nutrition research is needed for soldiers and recruits, Rood said, because those serving in high altitudes in Afghanistan need different levels of food and hydration than those in arid deserts or in dense jungles.

The project also will include specific nutrition research for female soldiers, who are more likely to suffer from anemia problems, Rood said.

“Warfighters every day face different physiological challenges, whether in combat or in training,” Rood said.

Some of the new Pennington research projects are taking place with military recruits at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, in North Dakota and with the U.S. Air Force in San Antonio, she said.

“It’s across all branches (of the military),” Rood said.

Landrieu said she is optimistic the research also will lead to spinoffs that can be developed into revenue-raising commercial ventures to improve nutrition for the general public.

More than $2 million in the grant is guaranteed in the first year, Rood said. She said she is cautiously optimistic future federal budget cuts will not hurt the grant funds.