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University of Illinois receives grant to study ozone resistance in corn

Published December 20, 2012

URBANA -- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a five-year, $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop ozone resistance in corn. These strains have the potential to combat the losses climate change and air pollutants have caused in crop yield. A team in the Genomic Ecology of Global Change (GEGC) research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology will lead the research.

"Ozone can cause major damage and yield reduction in crops," said Lisa Ainsworth, associate professor of plant biology and principal investigator on the grant. "Our estimates are that ozone is costing roughly $700 million in losses in U.S. corn production." Ainsworth is also a research scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and an affiliate of the GEGC theme.

The team includes co-investigators Andrew Leakey, assistant professor of plant biology, and Pat Brown, assistant professor of crop sciences, both of the U of I, and Lauren McIntyre, associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of Florida.

"Ozone can damage and stress cells by generating free radicals in them, causing them to age more quickly," said Leakey, who will use the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment (SoyFACE) facility, which allows crops to be grown under a variety of atmospheric climatic conditions, to conduct this research.

Brown added that a major issue with ozone is that farmers cannot perceive it as they could with a fungal infection or insect infestation. Developing strains resistant to ozone will not only increase yield but also reduce corn prices.

A further component of the grant will focus on outreach, including a camp for middle school and high school girls to investigate the impact of pollen on climate change and a new website aimed at middle-school students called Plants iView. The site will host interactive, educational lessons dealing with plant science topics, which will be available to local students as well as teachers across the country.