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Save the date for Agronomy Day 2018 at the University of Illinois

Published May 15, 2018
agronomy day

URBANA, Ill. – Agronomy Day – where science meets practice – returns to the University of Illinois for its 61st year on Aug. 16. As in previous years, Illinois producers will hear directly from U of I faculty on the latest scientific discoveries as well as practical advice on water quality, insect management, crop production, weed control, corn and soybean genetics, plant diseases, farm economics, agricultural engineering, and more.

“Agronomy Day provides the opportunity for the latest information on profitable, sustainable, and environmentally sound strategies for producing food and protecting natural resources,” says Bob Dunker, agronomist and former superintendent of the Crop Sciences Research and Education Center and chairperson for Agronomy Day.

Agronomy Day will be held at the South First Street Facility, located at 4202 South 1st Street in Savoy; directions appear on the updated Agronomy Day website.

Based on feedback from previous years, attendees will experience a new tour layout. This year, “tours” will be held in multiple tents surrounding the main exhibitors’ tent, each with a unique sequence of speakers. Presenters will be grouped according to themes for which attendees can earn certified crop advisor (CCA) credits.

“One of the tours was set up that way last year, and we got a lot of positive feedback,” Dunker says. “Start times will be staggered for each tent, allowing attendees time to move from one tour to another if desired. But it will mean a lot less walking for everyone, and more time to interact with research scientists and exhibitors.”  

This year’s keynote speaker is Chris Harbourt: engineer, entrepreneur, and leader with over 20 years of experience in agriculture, technology, business and academia. Harbourt, who co-founded Agrible and currently is a managing partner with Hatch Ag Group and an adjunct professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, will share his vision of the future of crop production and agronomic services.

The exhibitors’ tent will feature exhibits by sponsors, commercial vendors, research posters, ACES programs, and student clubs. Lunch, provided by Nelson’s Catering, will be available for $8.

More information and registration can be found at or by contacting Sue Overmyer at 217-300-3702 or

Illinois scientists highlight impact of diet in world’s largest citizen-science microbiome project

Published May 15, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Researchers at the University of Illinois, including Hannah Holscher, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, and Kelly Swanson, professor of animal sciences, along with scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and collaborators around the world have published the first major results from the American Gut Project, a crowdsourced, global citizen science effort.

The American Gut Project was co-founded in November 2012 by Rob Knight, Jeff Leach, and Jack Gilbert. The project’s goal was to better understand human microbiomes — which types of bacteria live where, how many of each, and how they are influenced by diet, lifestyle, and disease.

To do this, citizen scientists contributed $99 and received a kit to collect a stool sample and instructions to mail it back. Along with the sample, each participant answered a voluntary survey that included questions about general health status, disease history, lifestyle, and diet. Scientists processed the samples using a genetic barcoding technique, then mailed participants a report detailing what’s living in their guts.

“We observed a much greater microbial diversity than previous smaller studies found, and that suggests that if we look at more populations, we’ll see more diversity, which is important for defining boundaries of the human microbiome,” said Daniel McDonald, scientific director of the American Gut Project at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

As of mid-2017, the project included microbial sequence data from 15,096 samples provided by 11,336 people, representing primarily the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, along with 42 other countries or territories. The project and its affiliate, British Gut, have received more than $2.5 million in individual contributions to date through crowdfunding sites FundRazr and Indiegogo.

“It’s really amazing that more than 10,000 people — members of the public who want to get involved in science whether or not they work in a lab or have a PhD — have mailed their poop to our lab so that we can find out what makes a difference in somebody’s microbiome,” said Knight, who is also a professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Jacobs School of Engineering, and director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation.

As nutritional scientists, Holscher and Swanson were involved in the diet data collection and interpretation. Some of the findings reported in the mSystems paper discuss how eating a diet rich in different plants, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains is related to the composition of the gut microbiome. 

Specifically, the researchers found that the number of plant types in a person’s diet was related to the diversity of his or her gut microbiome — the number of different types of bacteria living there. Participants who ate more than 30 different plant types per week had gut microbiomes that were more diverse than those who ate 10 or fewer types of plants per week. The gut samples of these two groups also differed in the types of molecules present.

Holscher explains that previous research has shown that plants differ in the type and amount of dietary fiber they contain, affecting how much can be broken down and by what specific microbes.

“Humans cannot break down dietary fibers for energy. Instead, microbes in our gut break down these fibers. However, each microbe has specific enzymes that allow them to use certain fibers for energy,” she says. “For example, one microbe may be able to break down the fiber found in apples while another has enzymes to break down the fiber in whole grains. The microbial community works together to degrade and metabolize each food source. The results of this study suggest that the recommendation to ‘eat the rainbow’ is also important for gut health.” 

Most of the findings emerging from the American Gut Project so far are simply observations or associations, and in many cases researchers can’t yet extrapolate the ultimate effect on human health. For example, while the researchers observed that people who eat many plants have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who don’t, they don’t yet know if increasing a person’s microbial diversity from its current level would have a direct positive effect on his or her health.

“The American Gut Project is dynamic, with samples arriving from around the world daily,” Knight said. “The analysis presented in this paper represents a single snapshot, but we want eventually to go beyond making maps of the microbiome to making a microbiome GPS that tells you not just where you are on that map, but where you want to go and what to do in order to get there in terms of diet, lifestyle or medications.”

For the complete list of co-authors and institutions participating in the American Gut Project, view the full mSystems paper at:

The American Gut Project ( is funded by participants via crowdsourcing. Researchers who contributed effort or data analysis to the project are funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation (1144807), Sloan Foundation Microbiology of the Built Environment Program, Wyss Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, U.S. Department of Energy (DE-AC02-06CH11357.NS), European Research Council (starting grant 336452-ENIGMO), WELBIO (WELBIO-CR-2012S-02R), Société Nationale Française de Gastro-Entérologie (Robert Tournut Award), Wellcome Trust, UK Medical Research Council, JPI Dinamic, National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Facility at Guy’s & St Thomas’, NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas', UK NHS Foundation Trust, and King's College London.

Uncertainty in long-run economic growth likely points toward greater emissions, climate change costs

Published May 15, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – For scientists, estimating the extent of and cost of damages from climate change over the next 100 years is a challenging task. A primary challenge is developing forecasts of long-run economic growth, which is highly uncertain and directly affects projections of greenhouse gas emissions concentrations in major climate models.

Through this effect on emissions, uncertainty in long-run economic growth adds considerable uncertainty to projections of future temperatures and precipitation, glacier retreat, sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of storms, and droughts.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers from the University of Illinois and Yale University present a systematic method of integrating current models to develop forecasts of uncertainty in global and regional per capita economic growth rates through the year 2100.

Peter Christensen, assistant professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, along with Yale University colleagues, Kenneth Gillingham and William Nordhaus, compare estimates from a panel of expert economists and use a statistical approach designed to analyze long-run trends and variability. The researchers found substantially higher uncertainty than is assumed in current studies of climate change impacts, damages, and adaptation.

They report a median growth rate in per capita output of approximately 2.03 percent per year between 2010-2100, with a standard deviation of 1.1 percentage points per year. The estimates from both of these methods suggest a substantial upward revision in the current understanding of uncertainty in economic growth trends during the 21st century. Regulatory decisions involving long-run horizons such as global climate change and U.S. social insurance programs (i.e. Social Security, Medicare) depend critically on estimates of economic growth. This new understanding of uncertainty will affect policy planning in the United States and around the world.

“You can imagine when trying to develop comprehensive estimates of global climate change impacts in 2100, the uncertainties in each of the underlying models used as inputs into that final exercise must be integrated. This is a major scientific challenge in 2018,” explains Christensen. “Our team engaged several major modeling teams around the world to develop a method for incorporating these uncertainties. Future damages are highly sensitive to growth rates because they drive uncertainty in emissions concentrations.

“The scientific community has been underestimating uncertainty in the primary factor [long-run economic growth] that drives greenhouse gas emissions.”

Results from the study suggest more than a 35 percent probability that emissions concentrations will exceed those assumed in even the most severe of available climate change scenarios because of the larger range of growth rates. “The implication is that if we are producing more and consuming more, we must assume that emission rates will grow significantly faster than we thought,” Christensen says. “In the absence of meaningful climate policy, higher baseline growth scenarios likely imply higher emissions growth around the world. The level of uncertainty revealed by this study will shift our modeling of physical and social processes related to changes in the climate and the baseline for policymaking.”

Gillingham, co-author of the paper and professor of economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, explains that the findings, “illustrate the importance of paying close attention to the highest economic growth scenarios. Such high growth outcomes would be good for the world in many ways, but they have worrisome environmental implications if we don’t see real effort by policymakers.”

Future growth of the U.S. and world economies over this century may be considered one of the most pressing questions for many policy issues, from climate change to social security. Nordhaus, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, adds, “This study is the first to address this issue using both expert surveys and econometric techniques. It concludes that prospects are good, but uncertainties are much greater than people realize."

The paper, “Uncertainty in forecasts of long-run economic growth,” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1713628115] Co-authors include Peter Christensen, of U of I; Kenneth Gillingham, of Yale University; and William Nordhaus, of Yale University.

This work was partly supported by the Carnegie Commission of New York (Nordhaus), the Department of Energy (all authors), and the U.S. National Science Foundation through the Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management (SCRiM) under NSF cooperative agreement GEO-1240507 (all authors).

News Source:

Peter Christensen

2018-19 market outlook for corn and soybeans

Published May 14, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - The USDA released the first projections for U.S. corn and soybean supply and demand in the 2018-19 marketing year on May 10. Forecasts for both crops indicate lower ending stocks next marketing year with a substantial decrease in corn ending stocks. The upcoming growing season’s impact on production is a crucial determinant to a possibility of lower ending stocks next year.

However, University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs says the projections for marketing-year consumption levels provide essential information in forming expectations for corn and soybean prices. The consumption projections for both crops reflect the potential market size under a scenario consisting of lower supplies and higher prices. 

Production projections for 2018-19 came in lower than last year for both crops. The U.S average corn yield is projected at 174 bushels per acre with production at 14.04 billion bushels. The U.S. average soybean yield is projected at 48.5 bushels per acre with production at 4.28 billion bushels.

“Yield potential for both crops will unfold over the next few months and will be determined by weather conditions. Additionally, planted acreage levels are yet to be determined and still have a significant amount of uncertainty due to delayed planting in large areas of the northern Corn Belt. The USDA’s June Acreage report will provide more clarity on June 29,” Hubbs explains.

Soybean demand projections moved higher next marketing year despite numerous trade issues currently impacting the market. Soybean consumption sees a projected boost from domestic crush expansion. At 1.995 billion bushels, the projected crush level is 5 million bushels above estimates for the current marketing year.

Hubbs adds that this projection reflects an expectation of global soybean meal increasing by 5 percent as livestock production continues to expand around the world. Soybean oil exports look to expand 3 percent globally with stiff competition from various vegetable oils. Domestically, soybean meal consumption is projected to increase while exports move lower as Argentina recovers from recent production setbacks.

The soybean export projection for 2018-19 sits at 2.29 billion bushels, 225 million bushels above the current marketing year. The expansion of soybean exports in the presence of a large Brazilian crop and Chinese officials indicating a 0.3 percent decline in imports reflects an expectation of a 5 percent increase in global soybean imports.

Growth in world demand for soybeans is dependent on continued demand growth in Asian markets. Recent reports out of China provide an expectation of expansion in domestic soybean production by 5 percent. Additionally, a reduction of crush levels due to low hog prices and expanded DDGS production associated with increased ethanol production in China bear monitoring over the next year.

“While Chinese trade and domestic use targets may not come to fruition, the optimistic outlook for soybean exports is dependent on the Chinese market and the key to lower ending stocks next marketing year,” Hubbs says. “Total consumption, including seed and residual use, is projected at 4.420 billion bushels, 232 million bushels above use during the current year. Projections reflect expectations of continued demand growth both domestically and in foreign markets.”

In the corn market, corn use for ethanol is forecast at 5.625 billion bushels, 50 million bushels above the revised projection for the current year. The corn use for ethanol projection reflects the high levels of domestic ethanol production thus far in the 2017-18 marketing year. Hubbs notes that the importance of ethanol exports and continued growth in gasoline demand are key variables in meeting this projection. A flat to slightly higher corn use for ethanol forecast in 2018-19 appears likely under current ethanol export levels and gasoline prices.

Corn exports projections came in at 2.1 billion bushels, 125 million bushels lower than the 2.225 billion bushels expected for the current marketing year. Corn production issues in South America look to boost demand growth in export markets for U.S. corn. Brazilian corn production this year is revised down almost 450 million bushels from last year.

Hubbs adds, “When combined with the poor Argentinian crop, corn exports this marketing year look to be approximately 102 million bushels lower than last marketing year out of the region. While production in South America is projected to recover in 2018-19, U.S. exports should benefit over the remainder of 2018.”

Feed and residual use of corn is projected at 5.375 billion bushels, 125 million bushels lower than the 5.5 billion bushels expected for the current marketing year. “The projection reflects the expectation of a smaller crop and the impact of distiller’s grains in feed rations. Consumption for all uses is projected at 14.59 billion bushels, 175 million bushels less than the current marketing year,” Hubbs explains.

Ending stocks of U.S. corn for the 2018-19 marketing year are projected at 1.682 billion bushels, down 500 million bushels from current marketing-year ending stock projections. The reduction in ending stocks is directly related to the expectation of significantly lower production.  Ending stocks of U.S. soybeans are projected at 415 million bushels, 115 million bushels lower than the current marketing-year ending stock projections. Reduced soybean ending stocks reflect the optimism in soybean demand and lower production.

The projection for the 2018-19 average farm price of corn is in a range of $3.30 to $4.30. Current bids for harvest delivery in much of Illinois are slightly above the middle of that range. Hubbs concludes that any potential weather issues combined with continued strength in corn demand set up a scenario for a positive price response as we move into the summer. The average price for soybeans is projected in a range of $8.75 to $11.25, with harvest bids in much of Illinois currently below $10. The ability for U.S. soybeans to expand exports next year will be essential in meeting the projected increase in soybean consumption.

Discussion and graphs associated with this article are available here:

Cassava breeding hasn’t improved photosynthesis or yield potential

Published May 10, 2018
cassava seedlings

URBANA, Ill. – Cassava is a staple in the diet of more than one billion people across 105 countries, yet this “orphaned crop” has received little attention compared to popular crops like corn and soybeans. While advances in breeding have helped cassava withstand pests and diseases, cassava yields no more today than it did in 1963. Corn yields, by comparison, have more than doubled. 

University of Illinois researchers analyzed four African cultivars to find out how breeding has impacted photosynthesis—the process that transforms light energy and carbon dioxide into yield. They found that unimproved landraces of cassava – cultivars that have not been bred for improvements like pest and disease resistance – are actually 20 percent better at photosynthesizing than their improved counterparts, as reported in Food and Energy Security.

This research is part of the international research project Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) that is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and U.K. Department for International Development. The Cassava Source-Sink, or CASS, project generously provided the cassava cultivars.

“Cassava breeders have diligently worked to improve the pest and disease resistance of this crop, which has been absolutely critical,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, Ikenberry Endowed Chair of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “The next step is to improve cassava yield potential by improving its photosynthetic performance. There is clearly room for improvement of genetic yield potential in cassava through photosynthesis, and we must remember that increased genetic yield potential underpinned successes of the Green Revolution.”

Data from this study is being incorporated into a computer model simulation of cassava, enabling the team to virtually tweak and manipulate photosynthesis “in silico” to determine what genetic changes will increase cassava’s photosynthetic efficiency and yield. 

However, many of the needed changes to improve photosynthesis cannot be achieved through traditional breeding and will require genetically engineering cassava, which has so far been challenging compared to our major grain and seed crops.

“Genetic engineering of cassava is our major hurdle going forward,” said RIPE postdoctoral researcher Amanda De Souza, who led this study. “We know it is possible because colleagues working on the Gates Foundation-supported CASS project have been successful with a model cassava cultivar, but this cultivar is so disease-susceptible that it can’t survive in the real world. We need to extend this capability to African cultivars that can thrive in the fields of smallholder farmers.”

The paper, “Toward Improving photosynthesis in cassava: characterizing photosynthetic limitations in four current African cultivars,” is available online [DOI 10.1002/fes3.130] or by request.

News Source:

Amanda De Souza

Dietary patterns related to distinct microbiota composition in children

Published May 9, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Recent research has uncovered more and more about the human gut microbiome, including which microbes reside there and the functions they serve. Interest in how these microbes, especially bacteria, affect health and disease has also grown.

One thing researchers have learned is that diet is one of the most influential factors in determining the composition of the microbiome. How diet shapes the composition and stability of the microbiome in young children is not entirely understood, however. Nutrition researchers at the University of Illinois are looking at possible links between dietary patterns in children and their microbiota.  

A new study published in the Journal of Biochemistry, looks at the habitual dietary patterns of 4- to 8-year-old children and their microbiota composition. Findings show that there is distinct microbiota composition based on specific dietary patterns. A better understanding of how dietary patterns impact the microbiome could help in developing nutrition-based therapies for microbiota-related diseases.

“There is already research in adults that shows there are dietary patterns that can impact the microbiome,” says Kirsten Berding, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences and lead author of the paper. “We were interested to see if there were any dietary patterns in children that were associated with more beneficial microbes or more stable microbiota over a six-month period.”

Sharon Donovan, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I and co-author of the study, explains that by using exploratory Principal Component Analysis and Factor Analysis for the study, they were able to separate children’s diets into two groups or patterns. “This suggests that we need to look more holistically. And likely in the future it could lead to dietary recommendations that would be more holistic,” she says.

Prior to the study, Berding and the other researchers on the project hypothesized that children who ate more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, would have a more diverse microbiota that was also more stable over time. They also speculated that a diet high in animal products and processed foods would be associated with less beneficial bacterial composition that was more variable over time.

For the study, the children were not prescribed certain foods to eat, but parents reported their children’s usual food and beverage intake over the past year. The microbiota composition was determined from fecal samples collected throughout a 6-month period. Parents recorded a 3-day food diary—the types and quantities of food consumed—for their children before each sample was collected.

Statistically, a consistent dietary pattern can help provide a better picture of what is going on in the microbiome, Donovan says. “The nice thing about this approach is that we didn’t try to push foods into groups. We basically gave the information we collected to the computer, and the computer said these are the dietary patterns and these are the microbes they are associated with.”

After analysis, two main dietary patterns emerged: “Dietary Pattern 1” was characterized by fish, refined carbohydrates, vegetables, juice and sweetened beverages, protein foods, kid’s meals, condiments, snacks, and sweets. “Dietary Pattern 2” included grains, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Fruit and starchy foods were present in both patterns.

In addition, based on the patterns, two distinct microbial profiles emerged.

Specific bacterial families were present in the microbiota in higher or lower levels, based on the dietary patterns, as well. Berding says they noted the presence of Bifidobacterium, Prevotella, and Roseburia, which are typically related to health benefits such as immunity and protection against pathogens.

Lower levels of Clostridiaceae were also observed. This is a bacterial family of potential interest in relation to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Identifying dietary patterns that could impact some bacteria of potential importance in ASD symptomology could potentially be a future avenue for alleviating some symptoms of ASD through diet,” Berding says. 

While the children involved in this study had no health concerns, Berding and Donovan will use the same method in looking at children who have been diagnosed with ASD. Previous research has suggested some associations with microbiota composition and the severity of autism symptoms.

“Looking at the dietary patterns in children was a unique approach,” Donovan says. “This gives us insight in that, now that we know the types of foods in the dietary patterns, and the nutrient composition of those foods, we can ask those more specific questions about if we were to intervene and change something. If we had kids eating in one dietary pattern and we shifted that diet, would we be able to see a shift in their microbiome? It gives us information that makes it a possibility to use a personalized nutrition approach, formulating diets that are geared toward health needs.”

The paper, “Fecal microbiome composition and stability in 4- to 8-year old children is associated with dietary patterns and nutrient intake,” is published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. [DOI: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2018.01.002]. Co-authors include Kirsten Berding, Hannah D. Holscher, Anna E. Arthur, and Sharon M. Donovan. Donovan, Holscher, and Arthur all are in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Berding, Donovan, Holscher, and Arthur are all affiliates of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I. Arthur is also affiliated with Carle Cancer Center, Carle Foundation Hospital.

Funding was provided through a Vision 20/20 Hatch grant.

News Source:

Kirsten Berding

Fourth Annual International Food Security Symposium focuses on research and development strategy to avoid a world food crisis

Published May 9, 2018
Invited speakers for the symposium visit the cherry blossoms on the U of I campus.

A distinguished and dynamic line-up of speakers and nearly 100 attendees interested in new technologies for meeting increased agricultural demand gathered for the Fourth Annual International Food Security Symposium on the University of Illinois campus April 30 – May 1, 2018.

This year’s event encouraged presenters and attendees to share their visions for avoiding a world food crisis with a focus on research and development strategies within germplasm, abiotic and biotic stresses, and photosynthesis, and how to best recruit and train the next generation of plant breeders.

The symposium also celebrated the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) longstanding partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in The Philippines; several IRRI representatives were in attendance.

College of ACES Dean Kimberlee Kidwell opened the symposium by encouraging the attendees to make connections among each other.

“You never know what transformational opportunities can come out of events like these,” Kidwell noted after summarizing a sequence of events that led to the College of ACES and IRRI building a partnership that includes collaborative research and a fellowship program.  

Keynote by IRRI Director Emeritus and Illinois alumnus Robert Zeigler

Dr. Robert Zeigler, Director General Emeritus, IRRI, gave an inspiring and reflective lunchtime keynote address on how accessing germplasm can address the challenges posed by global climate change.

“During my time at IRRI we went from the sequencing of one genome being front page news to the sequencing of 3,000 genomes. But we need to remember what this work can mean for practical uses. This is exciting work for those of us who enjoy it, but it is much harder to use these resources to relate variation in genetics to variation in plant performance. And it takes global coordination to do this,” he said.

To the current and future plant breeders in the audience, he said, “I commend you for being in agricultural sciences. We are still so early on in understanding the manipulation of our crops. You have so much to look forward to that I am jealous. One thing I will tell you about this line of work and having a career like the one I had at IRRI is that when you go to bed at night you will not worry about wasting your life.”

Zeigler was also complimentary of and thankful for his time at Illinois.

“I am still benefiting from what I learned here [at Illinois] 50 years ago. There are so many opportunities here; I don’t think any university in the world exceeds the capacity here.”


Summary of Symposium

A summary of the symposium sessions – on germplasm, education, abiotic and biotic stresses, and photosynthesis, is provided below. Presentations will possibly be published on the event website at a later date.

Session 1 focused on mining germplasm banks efficiently and effectively.

Dr. Erik Sacks, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences and conference organizer opened the session by noting “Germplasm is the basis of all we do in crop improvement.”

Dr. Colin Khoury, National Laboratory for Genetic Resources PreservationUSDA/CIAT, stressed the need for crop diversity. “Genetic diversity in crops is valuable, and we have lost diversity. There is a huge movement towards a global standard diet,” he said. His work on this topic is published here.  

Dr. Denise E. Costich, Maize Germplasm Collection, Head, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) emphasized that need for the global community to have access to all the international germplasm banks. CIMMIT has the world’s largest genetic collection of maize and wheat, but other collections in China, Mexico, and Russia are not available to all. She noted that any research institution can order seed online at:​.

“The use of genetic resources found in international germplasm banks for crop improvement is about to accelerate very quickly. It will take a ‘village’ of different researchers to do this work, and there is lots of opportunity for all kinds of talents and interests,” Costich said.

Dr. J. Damien Platten, Scientist - Genomics Applications, IRRI, discussed harvesting the genetic diversity of rice.

“Genetic gain requires constant recycling of the best lines of parents. The focus should be on quality not quantity,” he said.

Dr. Ray Ming, Professor, Department of Plant Biology at Illinois, used papaya to discuss the engineering of true breeding hermaphrodite varieties, which is underway and will eliminate planting multiple seedlings.

“The advancement of genomic technologies, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will result in more efficient food production to meet the needs of a growing world population,” he said.

Dr. Jauhar Ali, Project Leader and Regional Coordinator- Green Super Rice (GSR) Project, IRRI, presented on genomic assisted breeding of climate-smart rice.

“IRRI has already released five hybrids for commercial use,” he said. He discussed - in detail - IRRI’s ongoing work on dozens more promising parental lines with multiple stress tolerances.


Session 2 focused on education and training the next generation of scientists.

Dr. Peter Brothers, Head, IRRI Education, discussed the success of the Lee Foundation Rice Research Fellowship program between the College of ACES and IRRI. He also offered several takeaways on how to best train the scientists of the future.

“Wherever we go with technology, one to one and face to face mentor/mentee relationships should not go away,” he urged. He said mentors should be explicit when helping their mentees craft careers and should always encourage globalization and moving from country to country in the early years of a career. He specifically encouraged young people to gain experience in China, India, South Korea, and Japan because these cultures will be more dominant in the future.

Dr. Jack Juvik, Professor, Department of Crop Sciences and Director of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center gave an overview of the Illinois crop sciences graduate program and the success of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center in producing outstanding plant breeding professionals. He noted that degrees in plant breeding are in high demand from employers; some of the Illinois graduates start at salaries of $100K. He announced a new joint degree offered by the departments of crop sciences and computer sciences. The first students (B.S) will start in Fall 2018, and he expects 20-25 new students per year.

Dr. Fred Cholick, President, Borlaug Training Foundation, talked about his foundation’s work to develop the next generation of ‘hunger fighters.”

As a young man, Cholick worked in the field and even hitchhiked through Argentina with Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize winner who is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

The Borlaug Training Foundation is a determined group of international scientists who collaborate pro bono to train and mentor early-career scientists. They develop plant scientists to improve crops around the world. He presented this video on the Bourlaug Graining program:

Cholick said it is imperative to take science to the field and bridge the gap between academics and real world experiences.

Dr. Rita Mumm, Professor Emeritus and founder of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center noted the shortage of plant breeders and also that they no longer just come from “the farm.”

“We have to reach out to young people early to show them there are good careers in plant breeding, seed science, and agronomy,” she urged.


Session 3 focused on abiotic and biotic stresses.

Dr. Buyung Hadi, IRRI Representative to Cambodia, Senior Scientist in Entomology, began his presentation by asking “Can we produce enough food without destroying the ecosystem we rely on?” He then outlined his group’s study on vegetable-based ecological engineering that starts with the farmer.

“This is about capacity building, innovation, and adoption but also about bringing back dignity in farming,” he said after giving an example of low adaption when farmers are not first consulted first on what they want to plant.

Dr. Andrew Margenot, Assistant Professor, Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois, challenged the audience to think differently about soil carbon and to place more emphasis on mitigating soil fluxes.

“Soil is the only resource available to smallholder farmers,” he noted.

Dr. Richard Sikora, Professor Emeritus, University of Bonn, also an Illinois alumnus, discussed the impact of soil borne pests and diseases, specifically in Southern Africa. He is working on an open-access book that will not include ongoing research but instead will include proven techniques that can be given to farmers immediately.

Dr. Brian Diers, Professor, Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois, talked about his group’s ongoing work to improve resistance to soybean cyst nematode, which affects 80 percent of fields in Illinois and is found in all counties. Lots of work is still to be done, he said, “Some sources of resistance have been developed but they don’t have the highest yields.” 


Session 4 focused on photosynthesis.

Dr. Johannes (Wanne) Kromdijk, Postdoctoral Research Associate, from Dr. Steve Long’s Photosynthesis Lab at Illinois, discussed using photoprotection for new crop improvement as part of the Realizing Increased Photosythetic Efficiency project, based at Illinois, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Xin-Guang Zhu, Shanghai Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, presented on a molecular design for higher yielding rice as part of his work with the C4 Rice consortium with IRRI.

Dr. Lisa Ainsworth, USDA-ARS Photosynthesis Research Unit and associate professor of plant biology at Illinois wrapped up the symposium with a summary of the ongoing work at Illinois to determine crop responses to increased ozone.


The fourth annual symposium in this series was co-sponsored by the ACES Office of International Programs, the Department of Crop Sciences, and the Office of Research.

Soybean Innovation Lab interns enjoy incredible opportunity to work on USAID project as undergraduates

Published May 9, 2018

To integrate the undergraduate experience with important development issues such as poverty reduction, agricultural development, and food security as well as the research methods used in these analyses, the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) offers an annual undergraduate research internship program.

The internship program, initiated in 2014, allows selected undergraduate students in the College of ACES an incredible opportunity to work part-time in the SIL administration offices located in on the U of I campus; register for, and complete, three hours of independent study research on an aspect of soybean for development; and complete a two-week study tour to a SIL research site in Africa.

For the 2017-18 academic year, two outstanding undergraduate students in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, Greg Householter (senior) and Sam Woessner (junior), worked as SIL research interns to provide support to the Lab in its goal of improving the soybean value chain in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Sam Woessner recalled, “During my time with SIL, I worked on promotional videos to be put on our YouTube channel. I also helped maintain the SIL website by updating pages and projects such as the soy recipe database. My favorite project while at SIL was testing the Malnutrition Matters Soymilk kit. I was able to work with Dr. Juan Andrade to test the pH and color of soymilk after different storage conditions.”

Greg Householter already had international experience prior to working with SIL, having studied and lived in both Sierra Leone and China. For SIL this year, he performed literature reviews on agricultural mechanization in Sub-Saharan Africa, created informational and marketing materials, and updated the website.

“Working at SIL allowed me to see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of a USAID-funded research project. With prior experience studying in West Africa, I had seen a lot of organizations striving to affect change in very concentrated ways. SIL brings together researchers from multiple institutions specializing in their respective fields to successfully implement programs that address the entire soybean value chain. This holistic approach is really encouraging for me after seeing many development efforts, including the case studies that our group in Sierra Leone focused on, that turned out to be unsustainable. SIL is active on the ground in Africa, and I've seen that their efforts are well planned, and evidence-based, to ensure their long-term success. My experience at SIL gave me more practical knowledge as I applied to graduate programs, helping me get a fellowship offer from my first choice program at the University of California San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy to earn my Master of International Affairs degree.”

SIL will once again be taking applications for the 2018-19 academic year, and interested students can send their resume to Ms. Courtney Tamimie, SIL’s associate director, at

ACES international ‘seed grants’ grow into significant impacts around the world

Published May 9, 2018

A longstanding internal grant program coordinated by the Office of International Programs (OIP) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) is realizing its goal of facilitating international efforts and collaborations that ultimately benefit ACES while making impacts around the world.  

The international seed grants program was initiated in 2009. Each project is funded through the Arlys Conrad Endowment Fund.

Over the past nine years, 18 rounds of recipients have received up to $4,000 for their proposed projects to build an international dimension into their existing work.  

“Sometimes faculty just need a source of funds to get a project started, for example to collect data, and then they can use the data to go after a larger proposal. Time and time again these initial funds have led to additional funding in the future,” said Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the ACES Office of International Programs.

“We recently started tracking the impacts of this program and the results have been encouraging. We knew the seed grants promoted collaborations between ACES faculty and international partners but we were unaware of the magnitude of impacts supported by these grants,” said Winter-Nelson.

Laura Christianson, assistant professor of water quality in the Department of Crop Sciences, who received a seed grant in spring 2016, volunteered her testimonial for this funding.    

“The funding led to many positive outcomes that it was intended to spur -- collaborative publications and presentations, additional networking, broader student training opportunities. Perhaps more importantly, it strengthened and created new relationships, which of course, form the heart of any collaboration. The original seed-funded experience and resulting follow-up interactions and travel were significant learning opportunities for me, and I had fun, to boot,” said Christianson.  

OIP generally requests feedback from the recipients two years after the grant was provided to ensure enough time has passed for impacts to materialize.

“The latest round of reporting we did for the Spring 2016 seed grants was especially impressive,” noted Winter-Nelson.

Impacts reported from the Spring 2016 seed grants: 

  • With the help of seed grant funds to collect preliminary data with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Russia, Anna Kukekova, assistant professor in animal sciences, was awarded a large grant from the National Institute of Health, “Molecular Mechanisms of Social Behavior.”
  • Using funding from a seed grant, Pete Goldsmith, professor in agricultural and consumer economics, developed the “Field Guide to African Soybean Diseases and Pests” in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Almost all the images from this guide are based on pictures taken in Africa, including red leaf blotch and Myrothecium leaf spot, which are not common to soybeans produced in the U.S. In the first few months since its publication, the guide received hundreds of page views and Twitter impressions, in addition to the print copies distributed at the Pan-African Soybean Variety Trial program occurring in nine locations in Malawi with both public and private-sector partners and funded by the USAID Malawi program Agricultural Diversification Activity (AgDiv). The guide has also been circulated to numerous plant breeding and agronomy partners throughout the developing world. The Soybean Innovation Lab, based at Illinois, has successfully made an argument for more funding for soybean disease thanks to this new guide.
  • Using funds from a seed grant, Maria Cattai de Godoy, assistant professor in animal sciences has built an international research program between the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil and the Illinois Companion Animal Nutrition (I-CAN) program to use insect meals as sustainable protein sources in canine and feline nutrition. This is a novel area of research because alternative and sustainable protein sources that are nutritional adequate and safe for pets are needed to decrease the competition of ingredient supply with the human food chain.
  • Using seed grant funding, Rabin Bhattarai, assistant professor in agricultural and biological engineering, helped a Haitian partner agency implement a drip irrigation system for growing red peppers. The yields from the drip irrigated fields were two times higher than the control (rain-fed) fields. This new collaboration will continue to improve the livelihood of Haitian farmers.

These are just some of the impacts from one round of seed grants (spring 2016). These awardees and many others have shown additional impacts and have additional activities and possible funding sources pending.  

OIP will announce its next round of seed grants early in the Fall 2018 semester. 

Click here for more information and a list of past recipients.