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Study links fox domestication to gene activity in the pituitary gland

Published February 15, 2018
Anna Kukekova
Anna Kukekova. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A study of foxes offers new insights into the brain changes that occur in wild canids as they become more tame, researchers report. The study links fox domestication to changes in gene activity in the pituitary gland, a brain center that kicks out hormones to regulate various bodily functions, including the stress response.

The study, published in the journal G3: Genes | Genomes | Genetics, adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that domestication alters animals’ reactivity to stress.

“Other studies have seen a relationship between tameness and stress responses in animals,” said Jessica Hekman, the first author of the paper who worked on the study as a graduate student in the laboratory of University of Illinois animal sciences professor Anna Kukekova. Hekman is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “In particular, the characteristic reduction in fearfulness of domesticated animals is closely linked to reductions in blood levels of ACTH, a hormone released by the anterior pituitary gland that, among other things, drives the stress response.”

To get a better view of how this might occur, the researchers looked at gene activity in the anterior pituitary glands of foxes in a breeding program at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, designed to study the evolutionary processes associated with domestication. They compared six foxes selectively bred for tameness and six foxes selectively bred for aggression.

“Previous studies have found that ACTH levels in the anterior pituitary do not differ between tame and aggressive fox strains,” Kukekova said. “This means that differential expression of the gene encoding ACTH may not cause the differences seen in blood levels of this hormone, and some other mechanism is reducing ACTH in the bloodstream of tame foxes.”

“Our analysis revealed that the differences between tame and aggressive foxes may lie in cells in the anterior pituitary gland, which can change their shapes to communicate with one another about when it’s time to release stress hormones,” Hekman said. “Their pituitary glands may produce the same amount of stress hormones but be less efficient at getting those hormones into the bloodstream.”

“If confirmed, our finding could help explain why tame foxes are not stressed so easily as foxes that have not been selected for tameness,” Kukekova said.

The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported this research.

Illinois researchers receive $1.6 million to study effects of maternal infection on offspring brain development

Published February 15, 2018
Research group
Research group, including (from left): Sandra Rodriguez-Zas, Courtni Sizemore, Megan Dailey, Romana Nowak, Adrienne Antonson, Laurie Rund, and Rodney Johnson.

URBANA, Ill. – Research in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois spans multiple disciplines, from production agriculture to neuroscience. This breadth of expertise is one reason several researchers in the department were recently awarded a $1.62 million, five-year research grant from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Dual Purpose for Dual Benefit” program.

“The NIH and USDA are looking for investigations that could help with food security and animal production but that can also be applied to biomedical research. Our research team is in a great position to achieve that,” says Sandra Rodriguez-Zas, professor of bioinformatics in the department, and a co-principal investigator on the grant.  

The researchers are studying stress resilience and want to know what happens to the offspring when mothers develop an infection during pregnancy. A number of studies have investigated the effects of so-called maternal immune activation, but most of the work has been done in rodents and the results don’t always translate well to other species.

The new study will focus on maternal immune activation and stress resilience in pigs. This is important, Rodriguez-Zas says, because the anatomy and physiology of pigs resembles that of humans. It also has relevance to pig production because less resilient animals may experience illness or slow weight gain due to a prolonged or exaggerated stress response. “The study has the advantage of simultaneously being applicable to animal production systems and to human health,” she says.    

Previous studies have only followed piglets to about four weeks of age, while they are still infants. Without taking the animals through weaning or other transitions that happen in later development, it’s impossible to predict the long-term effects of maternal infection. That’s why the researchers plan to track the pigs up to puberty.

“We’re looking at metabolism, reproductive physiology, and immunological indicators throughout the pigs’ development. And also tracking the hypothalamus, the master regulator that controls everything from appetite to behavior to immune response,” says Rodriguez-Zas. “It’s a truly unique multidisciplinary project.”

Rodney Johnson, professor of integrative immunology and behavior in the department and co-principal investigator, adds, “We’re very excited to understand what effects maternal immune activation might have on offspring as they transition from a liquid sow-milk diet to a solid corn-soy diet.”

Megan Dailey, assistant professor in the department and co-investigator on the project, says, “Understanding the impact of maternal immune activation on the development and functioning of the hypothalamus and its effects on homeostasis could ultimately enhance the health and growth of pigs for production and help in developing disease treatments for humans and other animals.”

Romana Nowak, professor of reproductive physiology in the department and co-investigator, highlighted that her group will determine whether exposure of the young piglets to maternal immune activation during pregnancy could result in delays in normal reproductive-tract development and function at puberty. 

“Prolonged exposure to stress is known to have detrimental effects on the reproductive axis in adult animals,” Nowak says, “but this has not been studied in great detail in young animals.” 

The researchers think pigs whose mothers had an infection during pregnancy may be less resilient to stress during critical periods. In pigs, that can manifest as an animal that won’t gain weight or won’t engage in normal social behaviors in group housing scenarios. In humans, scientists think there’s a potential link to autism or schizophrenia.  

“We know there are certain life stresses that are unavoidable, and we know there are inter-individual differences in how people or animals deal with that stress. Having a stress response is not unusual, but what’s critical is that the response not be overzealous. Animals whose mothers had an infection may have prolonged or exaggerated stress responses, and this study will tell us that,” Johnson says.

“The five-year grant will support many undergraduate and graduate researchers, as well as postdoctoral scholars,” Rodriguez-Zas says, “and will offer exceptional experiential learning opportunities using cutting-edge technologies at U of I.”

What predicts the quality of children’s friendships? Study shows cognition and emotion together play a role

Published February 13, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Whether children think their peers’ intentions are benign or hostile, and how those children experience and express their own emotions, may influence the quality of their friendships, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.

Friendships play an important role in children’s psychological and behavioral adjustment, especially during the transition to adolescence. Some friendships may even provide positive support and act as buffers against stress at home. Others may have negative features such as conflict or rivalry.

Child development researchers at U of I wanted to look at what predicts the quality of children’s friendships. In a recent study published in the journal Child Development, the researchers measured a child’s cognitions about negative but ambiguous peer events (attribution biases) and the child’s tendency to experience and express strong emotions (emotional intensity).

“We were most interested in understanding how children’s cognitions and emotions worked together to predict whether child-friend interactions were more cooperative and positive or more negative and conflictual,” says Nancy McElwain, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I.

Xi Chen, a doctoral student in the department and lead author of the study, explains that it was an interest in emotion that drove her to do the study. “But emotion doesn’t stand by itself. It comes together with cognition in a social context when a child is interacting with others.”

For the study, Chen and McElwain examined data from 913 study children (50 percent were boys; 78 percent were non-Hispanic white) and their friends who were participants in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Children and their friends were observed during a series of interactive tasks at grades 4 and 6.

Children's attribution biases were assessed during interviews at grade 4, during which children were presented with scenarios depicting negative but ambiguous peer events (e.g., your radio is broken by a peer) and asked how they would interpret the peer’s intention in each scenario (e.g., Did the peer mean to break your radio, or was it an accident?).

Responses that the peer intended to cause harm indicate a hostile bias. Responses that the peer did not intend to cause harm indicate a benign bias. Teachers also reported on children’s emotional intensity at grade 4.

Children's biases predicted child-friend interaction quality at grade 6, but only when children had high levels of emotional intensity. For instance, a more hostile attribution bias, combined with high emotional intensity, predicted more negative child-friend interaction. But in contrast, a more benign attribution bias, combined with high emotional intensity, predicted more positive child-friend interaction.

“Emotional intensity may act as ‘fuel’ that motivates or spurs behavior,” Chen explains. “At the same time, biases may act as the ‘compass’ that points children’s behavior in a certain direction. Children who hold a more hostile bias, for example, may be more likely to act out and engage in negative interactions with friends when the hostile bias is fueled by intense emotions.”

“Likewise, children who hold a more benign bias may engage in more positive behavior with friends, especially when this bias is again fueled by intense emotions,” McElwain adds.

Though they did not address specific behaviors in the study, Chen adds that for children who tend to perceive peers’ intentions as benign, and also tend to experience intense emotions, they might be more emotionally engaged when playing together with a friend, may initiate more pro-social behaviors, and share more laughter and positive interactions.

For children who tend to perceive their peers’ intentions as hostile and also who tend experience intense emotions, Chen says they may be more likely to act out, to “fight back” or attack their friends, or withdraw from interactions with friends.

There are ways that parents and teachers can help children develop quality relationships.

“One take-home message for parents and teachers is recognition that intense emotions can be beneficial. When paired with positive cognitions, intense emotion can promote positive interaction with friends,” says McElwain.

Chen adds, “A challenge is helping children who show negative cognitions. Adults can help by modeling positive views about negative events when the situation warrants. An example would be telling the child, ‘I don’t think he meant to spill the milk on your homework. It was an accident.’ A trusted adult might also ask – in a nonjudgmental way – about the child’s thoughts about unintended negative events.”

Often, a first good step in minimizing biases is recognizing they exist. “During adolescence, children are increasingly able to discuss and reflect on their own cognitions. So, this period of development, in particular, may be one in which negative cognitions and biases are open to change,” McElwain explains.

The paper, “Interactive contributions of attribution biases and emotional intensity to child-friend interaction quality during preadolescence,” is published in Child Development. Co-authors include Xi Chen and Nancy McElwain, both of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I, and Jennifer E. Lansford of Duke University. McElwain is also a part-time faculty member at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at U of I.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) was directed by a steering committee and supported by NICHD through a cooperative agreement (U10) that calls for a scientific collaboration between the grantees and the NICHD staff.

Xi Chen was supported by the Illinois Distinguished Fellowship while working on this manuscript, and she wishes to express thanks to University of Illinois Graduate College, who provides this fellowship.

Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting set for March 9th in Dixon

Published February 13, 2018
cattle feeding

URBANA, Ill. – Illinois cattlemen and cattlewomen will have the opportunity to hear from several experts at the 2018 Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting planned for Mar. 9th at Sauk Valley Community College outside Dixon. The meeting will be held from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“This meeting is a must-attend for Illinois cattle producers. First-hand access to this kind of knowledge in the cattle industry is rare,” says Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Beef Extension Educator.

Speaker Allison Cooke, director of governmental affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, will discuss agricultural policy issues. She will give an update on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), electronic logging device regulations for truckers, and other issues pertinent to Illinois cattlemen.

Ted Funk, U of I professor emeritus, will discuss manure handling best management practices and give an update on the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act. Funk will also be able to answer questions regarding building citing and environmental regulations.

Josh McCann, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, will share new research concerning transitioning diets for cattle.

Nathan Pyatt, technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, will discuss benchmark data collected in Midwestern feedlots and explain how using technology can be a good investment for the cattle feeder.

A market update and outlook will be given by Lance Zimmerman, an analyst for CattleFax. Zimmerman will give producers insight into current and future market dynamics.

An optional Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) training, led by Meteer, will be held from 2:45 to 4:45 for a fee of $10. Producers that opt to attend the training will leave BQA-certified.

Pre-registration is suggested for the meeting, but there is no fee to attend. Please RSVP to Travis Meteer by email or register online at Meeting details are available at

The meeting will be held in room 1K4 at Sauk Valley Community College, at 173 Illinois 2, Dixon, IL 61021.

“Come join fellow cattlemen in Dixon to enjoy an opportunity to gain knowledge for today’s cattle industry,” Meteer says.

News Source:

Travis Meteer, 217-236-4961

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Corn and soybean export development

Published February 12, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - Corn and soybean export projections for the 2017-18 marketing year changed substantially in the Feb. 8 WASDE report. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, the adjustments to export projections for both crops confirmed recent market information associated with export pace and foreign production potential.

“Exports for both crops will continue to play a large role in price formation during the current marketing year,” explains Todd Hubbs.

At 2.050 billion bushels, the current USDA projection for corn exports during the 2017-18 marketing year increased 125 million bushels in the latest WASDE report. On Feb. 6, the Census Bureau released export data for December, and corn exports for the marketing year through that period totaled 488 million bushels. Comparison of Census Bureau export numbers with weekly export inspections provided by the USDA shows the Census export total running approximately 59.2 million bushels ahead of export inspections through December. Through Feb. 8, cumulative export inspections equaled 617.9 million bushels. 

“If the difference between the two totals remained constant over the intervening period, total exports of corn currently sit at 677.1 million bushels,” Hubbs says. “For the rest of the marketing year, export inspections need to average 47.3 million bushels per week to meet the USDA projection.”

Hubbs explains that the rate of weekly export inspections continues to show strength with average export inspections over the last three weeks equaling 38.6 million bushels: a ten million bushels increase over the previous three-week period. “While this pace looks slow, growth in export sales data over the last four weeks in corn supports expectations of stronger export levels during the rest of the marketing year. Net sales over the last four weeks ending Feb. 1 averaged 68 million bushels. 

“Total outstanding sales for the current marketing year sit at 758 million bushels, which is below the 1.373 billion bushels required to reach the USDA projection. Currently, an increase in corn exports equivalent to last year’s export performance from February through August is necessary to meet USDA’s latest projection,” he adds.

Production issues associated with foreign corn exporters and stronger demand provide backing for stronger U.S. corn export performance during the remainder of the marketing year. The Argentinian production forecast decreased by 118 million bushels to 1.53 billion bushels. Corn exports from Argentina decreased by 59 million bushels to 1.08 billion bushels. A continuation of dry weather in the region holds the potential for Argentine corn production and exports to move lower. The USDA forecast for Brazil corn production stayed at 3.7 billion bushels despite CONAB reducing the corn production forecast in the region to 3.5 billion bushels. USDA forecasts an increase of Brazilian corn exports by 39.6 million bushels in spite of potential production issues. The projection for corn production in Ukraine decreased by 35 million bushels and the USDA lowered projected exports by 19.7 million bushels.

“In conjunction with these production issues, reports out of China indicate the current 9.5 billion bushels of domestic consumption forecast by USDA may underestimate consumption by 157 million bushels,” Hubbs says. “Export prices for U.S. corn continue to be highly competitive with other export markets and indicate strength in U.S. corn export markets over the near term.”

USDA projections for the marketing-year soybean exports decreased 60 million bushels to 2.1 billion bushels. Census Bureau export estimates through December place soybean exports at 1.286 billion bushels. Census Bureau export totals came in 26.7 million bushels larger than cumulative marketing-year export inspections over the same period. As of Feb. 8, cumulative export inspections for the current marketing year totaled 1.324 billion bushels.

“If the same difference in export pace through the current period is maintained, total soybean exports equal 1.350 billion bushels,” Hubbs says. “For the rest of the current marketing year, 25.8 million bushels of soybean exports are required each week to meet the USDA projection.” 

As of Feb.1, total outstanding sales for the current marketing year totaled 349.3 million bushels, which is below the estimated 749 million bushels required to meet the USDA projection. Current data suggest soybean exports may reach the recently lowered USDA projection for this marketing year. The ability to attain the current projection hinges on the size of the current crop in South America and U.S. competitiveness in export markets,” Hubbs adds.  

The Brazilian soybean production forecast increased by 73.48 million bushels for the second straight month to 4.11 billion bushels. The expected increase in soybean production levels led to a 73 million bushels increase in the forecast for Brazilian soybean exports, up to 2.53 billion bushels. Forecasts of Argentine soybean production currently sit at 1.98 billion bushels for the 2018 crop year, down 73.4 million bushels. “Reports out of Argentina indicate recent rains did not alleviate dryness issues and continued stress on the current soybean crop is expected.  Soybean export projections for Argentina stayed at 312 million bushels,” Hubbs says.

USDA forecasts 2.85 billion bushels of soybeans exports from Brazil and Argentina over the marketing year, up from last year’s 2.59 billion bushels. Stronger South American exports would continue to place downward pressure on U.S. soybean exports in 2018.

“Corn exports continue to build strength during this marketing year and hold the potential for a substantial increase in consumption. Current estimates of the soybean export pace remain subdued and continue the trend that began last fall. The size of the 2018 crop in South America and the competitiveness of U.S. export prices remain essential to determining U.S. export potential for the remainder of the marketing year,” Hubbs says.

News Source:

Todd Hubbs, 217-300-4688