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Syngenta Crop Challenge in Analytics contest kicks off

Published October 5, 2017
 Nico Martin

URBANA, Ill. – Food security relies on breeding crops that yield well no matter the conditions. Every year, seed companies test new hybrids in locations across the United States, in hopes of identifying the best out of thousands of hybrid/location combinations. Syngenta, together with INFORMS Analytics Society, is now asking for help in the form of a contest.

“In the last two years, I have been a witness of the impact of the Syngenta Crop Challenge,” says Nicolas Martin, assistant professor of bioinformatics in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and chair of the Crop Challenge prize committee.

“With hundreds of participants and submissions from all over the world from teams with backgrounds in engineering, computer sciences, and economics, they provide unparalleled insights to solve complex problems in agriculture." Martin encourages everyone with interest in big data to give the challenge a try.

This year’s challenge is to predict the performance of new hybrids in untested environments, using data from past years. Contestants download and analyze real data – some 4.8 million data points from eight years of Syngenta’s hybrid tests in over 2,000 locations – and use that to develop predictions about hybrids they tested this year.

Martin says there is no one right answer. The judges determine whether answers are reasonable from a biological standpoint, but they also take into account the methods, use of creativity, and clarity of the presentation. He calls it an academic exercise and points to the many scientific papers that have been published by past contestants.

“The contest is unique because it’s making proprietary data from the company available to the public, and allowing the winning group to retain intellectual property rights to the solution and to publish their work. Syngenta just provides the money, the challenge, and the data,” he says.

It may be an academic exercise, but finding a way to predict new hybrid performance in untested locations would be a huge boon for the agricultural industry and food security into the future.

“If corn breeders could accurately predict the performance of each hybrid in untested environments, they could make better decisions on which hybrids to move forward and provide to growers,” says Greg Doonan, head of oilseeds genetic projects at Syngenta. “With this competition, we’re tasking participants to apply their analytical and mathematical modeling skills to help solve this question. It is a great opportunity for those outside the ag industry to contribute their expertise to help deliver on the 21st-century food production challenge: growing more food to meet the needs of a growing population.”

Data and more information are available at Submissions are due Jan. 11, 2018. The first-prize winner takes home $5,000. The Informs Analytics Society sponsors the contest, and it is made available by IdeaConnection.

A happier emotional climate at mealtimes may mean healthier food choices by children

Published October 4, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Having more frequent mealtimes together is linked to greater healthy food consumption and lower risk for children of being overweight. But does the emotional climate of mealtimes play a role in what preschool-aged children choose to eat?

A new study from family studies researchers at the University of Illinois, examines what drives the mealtime emotional climate, how it affects a child’s food choices, and offers practices that may improve the emotional climate around the dinner table.

For parents struggling to get their kids to try new foods or eat more fruits and veggies, creating a positive mealtime environment may be the answer.

Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the U of I, explains that past studies have shown the emotional responsiveness of parents to their kids is a key predictor of problematic eating behaviors, such as binge eating, in young kids. “There are many reasons why we think that is, but we wanted to explore this in families of children with more typical eating behavior.”

Saltzman says the study focuses specifically on early childhood to see what is happening with early eating behavior in the family mealtime climate. “The eating behaviors you have early in childhood can track later on. Preschoolers are unique because they are on solid foods with a diet similar to adults, but their food choices are still mostly under the control of their parents. We really want to see what effect parents are having, and this gives us that window of opportunity to see that,” she adds.

By observing children and moms, especially, in a real, mealtime situation, Saltzman says the emotional climate clearly had an impact on the child’s healthy food consumption.

“Having more positive mealtimes, where people are enjoying themselves, where there’s mutual warmth and engagement, makes it a little bit easier for children to approach healthy foods,” she says. “When you have a negative family mealtime, you don’t want to sit there and try a new thing, enjoy a new texture, or cajole your child into trying something new. You just want to get through it. So having more positive mealtimes, particularly for parents, might make it a little easier for them to help their children make healthier eating choices later on.”

For the study, parents of preschoolers, who were participating in the STRONG Kids study, completed two questionnaires about mealtimes over a 20- to 23-month period, at about ages 3 and 5. In between that time, a home visit to observe a family mealtime was completed.

From the mealtime observation, researchers used observational coding schemes to count the number of times moms and kids expressed positive and negative emotions. They then combined those observations to look at the ratio of positive to total emotions and negative to total emotions for both moms and kids.

“What we found was that there were two groups of families. We had families where moms were expressing a lot of positive emotion and very little relative negative emotion, and those were our ‘positive expressers.’ The other group was our ‘all expressers’ where moms were expressing about the same amount of positive and negative emotions. We did not find any significant differences between the positive expressers and all expressers on children’s emotions, which was really interesting to us.”

Saltzman explains that families with more positive emotions over the mealtime had children who ate about one serving, on average, more of healthy food—fruits, vegetables, and soy-protein products—than the all expressers. “We were happy to see that families who are more positive at their mealtimes have kids who seem to be eating a little more healthy food.”

After finding that emotional climate during mealtimes did have an impact on the children’s healthy eating behavior, they explored how to help parents deal with this. “We asked, ‘what can we do to promote positive mealtime climates’ because it might be really difficult for some parents to express more positive emotions overall. We don’t want to tell people how to feel necessarily.

“We wanted to see how feeding practices were related to mealtime emotional climates. Regarding feeding practices, the logic is that  families that use particular feeding practices—those that are linked to better eating behaviors in kids or less chaos during mealtimes, for example—are also those families that have more positive mealtimes.”

Saltzman explains that some feeding practices did come into play. Feeding practices are specific behaviors parents use when they are feeding their children, including anything from encouraging the child to eat a balanced and varied diet, rewarding them with food, involving them in food prep and grocery shopping, or even restricting their intake of certain types or amounts of food.

“Food involvement feeding practices where parents are involving their child in grocery shopping, meal planning, or meal preparation were related to lower likelihood of being in the all expressers group. “So those parents who were involving their kids in food preparation or meal planning had mealtimes that were a little more positive,” she says.

The findings can help parents find things they can do to improve the mealtime climate. “First of all, I wouldn’t tell parents to just be more positive—to just slap a smile on your face—because in the face of a picky-eating preschooler or any other mealtime challenge, that’s just not going to work.  But there are several things parents can do. Parents can engage in clear and direct communication with their child about what’s expected during mealtimes. Setting the rules and routines is another big thing, such as having meals about the same time when you are able to, in the same room or setting. And giving people specific roles. Maybe if you have an elementary-aged child, perhaps it’s time to teach them to help set the table and you get them into that routine.”

Another thing Saltzman says parents can do if they are struggling with regulating emotions during mealtimes, is to practice emotion regulation techniques for themselves. “Breathing exercises are really great, counting to 10 in your head, or taking a step back from the mealtime are all really important but difficult things for parents to do.

“You also can encourage your child to express themselves with words rather than screaming. It’s perfectly fine and normal for kids to have negative emotions, particularly when they have to eat a food they don’t necessarily feel like eating that day, or if they’ve just had a hard day. Encouraging your child to use their words, to try a bite and move on, may help. It’s important not to force the issue too much. And in regards to food introductions, it’s important for your child to try new foods, but equally important not to force it on your child if they’re really not liking it after about seven to eight different exposures to the food.

Although the study only focused on mothers, Saltzman says she would like to replicate the study and include fathers and other family members to see their impact on the mealtime climate, as well.

For parents who want to have positive mealtimes, the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois created a series of videos—called Mealtime Minutes—with creative strategies for managing some of the challenges of mealtimes. These videos are available for free on the FRC’s website at

The paper, “Predictors and outcomes of mealtime emotional climate in families with preschoolers,” is published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Co-authors include Jaclyn A. Saltzman, Kelly K. Bost, Salma Musaad, Barbara H. Fiese, Angela R. Wiley, and the STRONG Kids Team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

News Source:

Jaclyn Saltzman

Are we at a tipping point with weed control?

Published October 4, 2017
palmer amaranth
Palmer amaranth can reduce yields up to 80 percent.

URBANA, Ill. – Imagine walking the cereal aisle at your favorite grocery store. Are you reading labels? Scanning prices? Thinking about weeds? If you’re like most American consumers, weeds probably aren’t at the forefront of your mind when buying food. But if farmers could no longer control weeds with existing herbicides, Americans would take notice pretty quickly.

“I think the future of cheap food is strongly related to the availability and effectiveness of existing herbicides,” says Adam Davis, ecologist in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and USDA Agricultural Research Service. That is, without working herbicides, food could get a lot more expensive.

Davis and George Frisvold, an economist at the University of Arizona, recently teamed up to consider the possibility that we’ve reached a critical tipping point in our ability to control agricultural weeds with the herbicides currently on the market. They published their analysis in the journal Pest Management Science.

“I believe if we fully lost chemical control of certain weeds, and if farmers continued with the corn-soybean rotation, they’d be forced to reduce their acreages as they spend more time and money managing weeds. And the cost of the end product, our food, would go up as well,” Davis says.  

If you’re not in the farming industry, you might not be aware that weeds like common waterhemp and Palmer amaranth can reduce corn and soybean yields anywhere from 30 to 80 percent, and that those weeds are developing resistance to available herbicides. Like antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” resistant weeds simply can’t be killed by herbicides.

There are lots of herbicides on the market, but they all fall into one of 16 categories describing their mode of action (MOA), or specific target in the plant that the chemical attacks. Because of various regulations and biological realities, a smaller number of herbicide MOAs can be used on any given crop and the suite of weeds that goes along with it. At this point, many weeds are now resistant to multiple MOAs.

“In some areas, we’re one or two MOAs away from completely losing chemical control for certain weeds. For example, in east central Illinois, we have common waterhemp that is resistant to five out of the six relevant MOAs in a corn-soybean rotation,” he says. “And there are no new herbicide MOAs coming out. There haven’t been for 30 years.”

The lack of new herbicides is only one factor that led us where we are today. Davis and Frisvold suggest that herbicide susceptibility in weeds should have been viewed as a finite resource all along, like the global oil supply. As resources start to dwindle, prices should theoretically go up as a way to prevent overuse and total resource exhaustion. But unlike oil, herbicide prices have actually decreased over the past 30 to 40 years.

“The assumption is that, in a rational market, people will use less of a dwindling resource because it gets more expensive or they notice a problem. It’s not happening for herbicides,” Davis says.

The rollout of crops engineered to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate (RoundUp) may have added to the problem. Davis believes their availability led to greater reliance on chemical solutions to weed control, rather than the diverse mix of weed management practices that used to be the norm. And that meant farmers were spraying herbicide more frequently.

But weeds are wily. Like all organisms, they evolve in response to their environment. With more exposure to a certain environmental pressure (in this case, the herbicide), the more opportunity there is for adaptation. Over time, random genetic mutations allowed some weeds to withstand herbicides. Offspring from those plants grew, survived, and reproduced. And so on, until the majority of plants were left with the mutation.

It sounds dire, but Davis remains optimistic. “I believe there’s hope,” he says, “but it requires that we take action to diversify weed management now.”

Just what would it take to bring us back from the brink of total weed domination? Davis has a lot of ideas, but one of the big ones is something he calls the “middle way,” which bridges the gap between the traditional corn-soy rotation with its heavy herbicide inputs and a diversified organic system.

“Right now we have a dominant system where we have two summer annuals following each other. Because we don’t have any change of phenology (timing of development) of the main crop, we have the same weed spectrum in both crops. We never destabilize it. But if you introduce a small winter grain or a forage legume into that system, you begin to make it difficult for summer annual weeds like waterhemp to become dominant. So you can get about 90 percent there just with a good crop rotation.

“Then you build in things like weed suppressive cultivars, banded herbicides, row spacing, cultivation, harvest weed seed control, and all these tactics together can add up to really effective weed management systems. We’ve shown you can reduce herbicide use by 90 percent in diversified systems and get the same amount of weed control. Same profit, same productivity, but two orders of magnitude reduction in environmental pollution, and a 90 percent reduction in fertilizer use. It’s not hard to do for the grower,” he says.

The hard part, he notes, is thinking about economic and regulatory incentives that will help growers diversify their management practices. But he hopes the new article will generate discussion, bring awareness to the issue, and facilitate the stewardship of existing herbicides into the future.

The article, “Are herbicides a once in a century method of weed control?” is published in Pest Management Science and is freely available to the public. Support for the work was provided by the USDA-ARS Area-Wide Pest Management Program.

News Source:

Adam Davis, 217-333-9654

Chris Evans Receives Illinois Forestry Association Award

Published October 3, 2017

Chris Evans, Extension Forester with NRES, was recently honored with a Special Achievement Award at the 12th Annual Illinois Forestry Association Meeting and Fall Conference, "Healthy Forests on the Edge." The conference was held at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

Chris was one of the the featured speakers, presenting "Latest Trends in Invasive Plant Species and Agroforestry: Forestry on the Edge of Ag."

The Special Achievement Award is given for exceptional service and dedication to Forestry and the Forestry Association in Illinois.

A maternal high-fat diet may program child for disease risk, but better nutrition later on can change that

Published October 3, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Research has shown that a mother’s diet during pregnancy, particularly one that is high-fat, may program her baby for future risk of certain diseases such as diabetes. A new study from nutrition researchers at the University of Illinois shows that switching the offspring to a new diet—a low-fat diet, in this case—can reverse that programming. 

Yuan-Xiang Pan, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I, along with Laura Moody, a doctoral student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I study how early-life nutrition affects later generations and offspring health. In a new study published in the journal, Epigenomics, the researchers focused on whether a post-weaning diet, or a diet later in life, could control the epigenome and affect metabolism in the body.

Epigenetics does not involve changes to the DNA sequence, but are changes that modify gene expression. A person’s epigenome is inherited, but it is also reversible based on what you eat, whether you exercise, and even where you live, for example.

“Traditional genetics says that you inherit a sequence from your parents. Epigenetics says you can inherit these other changes to the DNA, as well,” Moody explains. “This is where the whole maternal programming of metabolism—the epigenome—comes into play. We wanted to show these changes are easily altered, even after this critical period. You can still change that epigenome later in life.

“The message is not that the high-fat diet is itself bad, but rather you always have the opportunity to change it later. It’s not like you are doomed by what your mom or dad did in early in life,” she adds.

For the study, the researchers looked at rats that were exposed to a high-fat diet (45 percent fat) during gestation and lactation. At weaning, some of the rats stayed on a high-fat diet and some were put on a low-fat diet (16 percent fat).

The researchers then did whole-genome sequencing of the rats, focusing on differences between gene expression in the livers of the two sets of rats. In particular, they wanted to see if DNA methylation in the liver adapted to the new, low-fat diet. DNA methylation is a mechanism cells use to control gene expression at the epigenetic level. It involves the addition of a methyl group to DNA that changes the way genes are transcribed and affects gene expression.

Scans showed remodeled DNA methylation patterns in the low-fat group, which changed gene expression associated with fat metabolism and inflammation in the liver; there was less fat accumulation and inflammation in the liver. This shows that DNA methylation is responsive to dietary changes later in life.

While there were physiological changes in the rats on low-fat diets, including lower body weight, Moody says they were most encouraged to see the changes in specific metabolic pathways related to type 2 diabetes, suggesting changes in rats’ risk for the disease.

“There were definitely physiological outcomes, but we focused on the epigenetic outcomes,” Moody says. “We did a whole genome scan, so we weren’t just looking in one particular area. So I think it’s even more impressive that it was these specific pathways—the type 2 diabetes mellitus pathways—that were metabolically related that were the most changed.”

Because research—some from Pan’s own lab—has shown that the early-life environment, including nutrition, can program certain diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and even some cancers, the study may offer good news for health throughout the lifespan.

“The early-life environment will mark your epigenome in a certain way so that you may develop certain phenotypes or disease states. Our study shows that after that early programming state, after weaning, and after the lactation period, when we introduced a new type of diet it changed the epigenome in a way that actually affects metabolism and potentially will reduce some of the damage caused by an early-life high-fat exposure,” Pan says.

Pan adds that their study shows that the “reprogramming” is possible at least from the point of post-weaning. “Whether we can start from adolescence, or even later in life, we don’t know that yet. But hopefully our study shows that by simply changing nutrition you can reverse some of the potential consequences.”

Pan’s goal is also to continue identifying potential molecular mechanisms involved in this early programming. “If we identify mechanisms, then we can do more detection of disease risk. Even if we don’t know what happened during a person’s early-life environment, but we do know that they have the potential to develop these kinds of diseases, we can tell them to pay attention to their diet, environment, stress, etc. to minimize the risk of eventually developing these diseases.

“Goal two is to find intervention strategies, including this case, where we show that if you switch to a different diet you actually can specifically remodel the epigenome in the liver related to certain metabolic pathways,” he says.

Moody says she will continue to take a more whole-body systemic approach to understand how dietary patterns can affect the epigenome in different tissues in the body and how that can reduce disease risk.

The paper, “Postnatal diet remodels hepatic DNA methylation in metabolic pathways established by a maternal high-fat diet,” is published in Epigenomics. Authors include Laura Moody, Hong Chen, and Yuan-Xiang Pan, all of the University of Illinois.

This project was supported by UIUC Research Board grant #12192 and the Data Purchase Program from the University Library.