URBANA, Ill. – The agriculture industry is in a tough spot; it’s simultaneously tasked with feeding a growing population and minimizing its environmental footprint. For corn breeders, that means improving nitrogen-use efficiency and crowding tolerance, all while maximizing yield. The first step, according to a new study from the University of Illinois, is understanding the genetic yield potential of current hybrids.
“Growers and breeding programs need to understand which hybrids have stable yields across environments or are able to produce greater yields with more fertilizer and higher plant populations,” says Fred Below, professor of crop physiology in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-author on the study.
A hybrid with high yield stability is less responsive to the environment – it will perform consistently in sub-optimal and optimal conditions. It’s a workhorse: dependable, but not flashy. Alternatively, a hybrid with high adaptability will yield like gangbusters when planted in optimal conditions, but may let farmers down in a bad year. It’s more like a racehorse: it’ll go, but it’s finicky.
The problem is that current commercial breeding programs develop their elite hybrids under optimal conditions – high levels of nitrogen fertilizer and plenty of space between rows – and only test yield responses to different crop-management practices at the pre-commercial stage. That means there is a limited understanding of each hybrid’s stability and adaptability under variable conditions.
To fill the gap, Below and his research team evaluated 101 commercially available elite hybrids at two planting densities and three nitrogen fertilizer rates across multiple years and locations.
“The objective was to measure the interactions of the hybrid with the environment and management style by evaluating an extensive assortment of current maize hybrids for yields and classify them for yield stability and crop-management adaptability to improve future breeding programs,” he says.
The researchers found that the amount of applied nitrogen fertilizer had a much greater effect on yield than planting density, but they emphasize that the consistency of the yield response was more important.
Hybrids that combined above-average yield under unfertilized and low-nitrogen conditions exhibited more consistent yields regardless of the environment, even when grown with high rates of nitrogen. These workhorse hybrids would be best used in nitrogen-loss prone areas, or when yield stability is more desired.
In contrast, other hybrids yielded more under high-nitrogen than low-nitrogen conditions, but their yields were more variable, due to a greater sensitivity to environmental conditions. These racehorse hybrids have potential for greater yield return when provided the optimal management and environment, but also carry a higher risk of underperformance in yield when faced with less-than-ideal conditions.
“Selecting hybrids with both high yields and yield stability may be challenging, since yield levels under lower nitrogen availability and yield increases with high nitrogen fertilization were negatively correlated,” Below says. “Hybrids that are adaptable to high plant density and nitrogen conditions exhibited greater yield potential, but also greater yield variation.”
“Yield stability differs in commercial maize hybrids in response to changes in plant density, nitrogen fertility, and environment,” is published as an open access article in Crop Science [DOI: 10.2135/cropsci2017.06.0340]. Below’s co-authors include Adriano Mastrodomenico, Jason Haegele, and Juliann Seebauer. This research was supported by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture [project NC1200], Illinois AES, Crop Production Services, Growmark, Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Winfield United, and Wyffels Hybrids.
Million-meal milestone ensures families have food to eat
URBANA, Ill. - Across the state, one event at a time, Illinois 4-H members and volunteers are dedicating energy, time, and money to creating more food-secure communities where they live. On April 4, Illinois 4-H passed a major milestone, providing more than one million meals to families as part of the 4-H Feeding & Growing Our Communities initiative.
The efforts began humbly in November 2013, said Bill Million, University of Illinois Extension 4-H youth development specialist. 4-H members evaluate the hunger issues in their local communities and develop strategies to meet the challenges.
One of those strategies has been sponsorship of meal-packaging events. Illinois 4-H works with Illini Fighting Hunger, a U of I student group operated out of Wesley Foundation in Urbana.
“4-H club members purchase bulk ingredients, then measure to fill family-size packages of the soy-based casserole meals,” Million said. “The meals are distributed to local food pantries and service organizations to be distributed to families in need.”
The ingredients cost about 14 cents per meal, and 4-H clubs hosting a meal-packaging event must raise funds to cover the cost of the meals they package. Up to $750 is provided to groups by the Illinois 4-H Foundation.
On April 4, the efforts of volunteers from Cass, Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Calhoun counties added to the 50 previous meal-packaging events to push the group over the one-million-meal mark. Local 4-H member Anne Becker coordinated the effort. This was the second event Anne has coordinated with assistance from the Morgan County 4-H Federation. They raised more than $1,500 to purchase the ingredients and received an additional $1,500 in grants from the Illinois 4-H Foundation and Evelyn Brandt Thomas.
Food access is a major initiative of Illinois 4-H. “In Illinois one in five children face hunger weekly,” Million said. “Children struggle to learn if they are hungry.”
In addition to packaging meals, 4-H clubs sponsor a variety of hunger activities. More than 22,000 pounds of produce with a value of $39,000 has been grown and donated to food pantries from 60 4-H gardens. Youth in Hamilton County 4-H had a bumper crop, donating more than 2,500 pounds of produce to local food pantries during the 2017 growing season.
Many gardens are tended by residents in the communities of most need. “It is a joy to watch a garden grow,” said a 4-H volunteer from the Bountiful Kids 4-H Club in Peoria County. “But I think the bigger joy was in donating the vegetables we worked hard to tend,” she said. “Experiences like these will nourish these children to become giving adults.”
Washington County 4-H teens have addressed food deserts by creating mobile food pantries in their communities. In 2017, 79 4-H teens distributed 35 tons of produce, from potatoes and apples to eggs and cereal. The teens sort and bag food provided by St. Louis Food Bank trucks. As families arrive, 4-H Hunger Ambassadors distribute the bags.
“Understanding the need and contributing to the solution builds character and promotes a generous spirit,” said Amanda Fox, Washington County Extension 4-H program coordinator. Mobile pantries serve about 100 families monthly.
In some counties, 4-H members gather food donations to fill weekend backpacks for children to take home. In other communities, food packs are given to elderly residents. Food pantries often lack the simple ingredients for a birthday celebration, so 4-H members around the state went into party mode in 2017. Clubs in Warren, Henderson, Kendall, DuPage, Kane, Peoria, Macoupin, Grundy, Franklin, Tazewell, and Monroe counties prepared more than 760 birthday bags and distributed them to local pantries and helping agencies.
The bags included everything needed for a birthday celebration — cake mix, frosting, candles, hats, toys, party supplies, birthday cards, plates, napkins, balloons, candy, and party favors.
In Rock Island County, 4-H Hunger Ambassadors plan, prepare, and serve community meals each month. The grassroots effort empowers youth to understand hunger in their local community, then tailor a plan to their community’s needs.
The life lessons 4-H members gain may equal the life-saving food their efforts provide, said a Hardin County Corn Fed Clovers club leader. “The 4-H Feeding and Growing Our Communities garden not only produced vegetables for community members in need; it also produced kids with a new outlook on how they can be caring citizens.”
The largest packaging event was held November 4, 2017 in Ullin, representing the counties of Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union. More than 350 volunteers packaged 101,200 meals in five hours. Kristi Stout, U of I Extension 4-H youth development educator, credits numerous partner organizations for motivating their volunteers in the massive hunger-fighting initiative.
More than 7,800 4-H youth and adults have volunteered over 45,000 hours of service to improve access to healthy food in their Illinois communities over the past four years. Illinois 4-H clubs have raised $65,000 local funds to help families in need, providing food to 389 food pantries.
Researchers to discuss nutrition’s role in metabolic disease at 2018 nutrition symposium
URBANA, Ill. – Promising research in pre-clinical models, and in humans, has shown efficacy in metabolic therapy for management of malignant cancer. Boston College biology professor, Thomas Seyfried, will discuss this issue during his keynote address, “Cancer as a Mitochondrial
Metabolic Disease: Implications for Novel Therapeutics,” at the 2018 Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student Association Nutrition Symposium on Wednesday, April 18, from 4 to 5 p.m. in 180 Bevier Hall at the University of Illinois.
The event is open to the public.
Seyfried, who received his Ph.D. in genetics and biochemistry from the U of I in 1976, researches mechanisms by which metabolic therapy manages chronic diseases such as epilepsy, neurodegenerative lipid storage diseases, and cancer. In his keynote address, Seyfried will discuss how metabolic therapies targeting glucose and glutamine while increasing therapeutic ketosis may significantly improve quality of life and overall survival for many cancer patients.
In addition to Seyfried’s keynote address, a mini-symposium including U of I faculty will take place from 12:45 to 2:15 p.m. in the Monsanto Room of the ACES Library, Information, and Alumni Center. This year’s presentations will address nutrition’s role in metabolic alterations of disease, and will feature John Erdman, Rex Gaskins, and Hannah Holscher.
Oral presentations by graduate students will take place from 9:15 to 11:30 a.m. Poster presentations will occur from 5:15 to 6:40 p.m.
All sessions except for the keynote address will take place in the ACES Library.
Visit the symposium website, http://nutritionsymposium2018.weebly.com/, for more information.
The Nutrition Symposium is sponsored by Abbott Nutrition; Mead Johnson Nutrition; Beneo; Hill’s Pet Nutrition; and the Student Organization Resource Fee (SORF). Friends of the symposium are Campbell Soup Company; U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Departments of Animal Sciences, Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Human Development and Family Studies; U of I Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology; Carle Illinois College of Medicine; and U of I College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Comparative Biosciences.
Satellites, supercomputers, and machine learning provide real-time crop type data
URBANA, Ill. – Corn and soybean fields look similar from space – at least they used to. But now, scientists have proven a new technique for distinguishing the two crops using satellite data and the processing power of supercomputers.
“If we want to predict corn or soybean production for Illinois or the entire United States, we have to know where they are being grown,” says Kaiyu Guan, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, Blue Waters professor at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and the principal investigator of the new study.
The advancement, published in Remote Sensing of Environment, is a breakthrough because, previously, national corn and soybean acreages were only made available to the public four to six months after harvest by the USDA. The lag meant policy decisions were based on stale data. But the new technique can distinguish the two major crops with 95 percent accuracy by the end of July for each field – just two or three months after planting and well before harvest.
The researchers argue more timely estimates of crop areas could be used for a variety of monitoring and decision-making applications, including crop insurance, land rental, supply-chain logistics, commodity markets, and more.
For Guan, however, the work’s scientific value is as important as its practical value.
A set of satellites known as Landsat have been continuously circling the Earth for 40 years, collecting images using sensors that represent different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Guan says most previous attempts to differentiate corn and soybean from these images were based on the visible and near-infrared part of the spectrum, but he and his team decided to try something different.
“We found a spectral band, the short-wave infrared (SWIR), that was extremely useful in identifying the difference between corn and soybean,” says Yaping Cai, Ph.D. student and first author of the work, following the guidance of Guan and another senior co-author, Shaowen Wang in the Department of Geography at U of I.
It turns out corn and soybean have predictably different leaf water status by July most years. The team used SWIR data and other spectral data from three Landsat satellites over a 15-year period, and consistently picked up this leaf water status signal.
“The SWIR band is more sensitive to water content inside the leaf. That signal can’t be captured by traditional RGB (visible) light or near-infrared bands, so the SWIR is extremely useful to differentiate corn and soybean,” Guan concludes.
The researchers used a type of machine-learning, known as a deep neural network, to analyze the data.
“Deep learning approaches have just started to be applied for agricultural applications, and we foresee a huge potential of such technologies for future innovations in this area,” says Jian Peng, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at U of I, and a co-author and co-principal investigator of the new study.
The team focused their analysis within Champaign County, Illinois, as a proof-of-concept. Even though it was a relatively small area, analyzing 15 years of satellite data at a 30-meter resolution still required a supercomputer to process tens of terabytes of data.
“It’s a huge amount of satellite data. We used the Blue Waters and ROGER supercomputers at the NCSA to handle the process and extract useful information,” Guan says. “Technology wise, being able to handle such a huge amount of data and apply an advanced machine-learning algorithm was a big challenge before, but now we have supercomputers and the skills to handle the dataset.”
The team is now working on expanding the study area to the entire Corn Belt, and investigating further applications of the data, including yield and other quality estimates.
The article, “A high-performance and in-season classification system of field-level crop types using time-series Landsat data and a machine learning approach,” is published in Remote Sensing of Environment [DOI: 10.1016/j.rse.2018.02.045]. Additional authors include Christopher Seifert, Brian Wardlow, and Zhan Li. The work was supported by NCSA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.
Illinois Extension to offer webinar on international trade and small business development
URBANA, Ill. - University of Illinois Extension’s Community and Economic Development team will host a free webinar, International Trade and Small Business Development, presented by Kathie Cravens, an International Trade Specialist from the Illinois Small Business Development Center in Champaign, Illinois. The webinar is from noon to 1 p.m., Thursday, April 12.
“Local officials and economic development professionals will learn about what they can do to assist small business expansion into the international market, international trade opportunities in Illinois, and business retention,” says Nancy Ouedraogo, extension specialist in community economic development.
Kathie Cravens, CGBP, MIEx, a seasoned international trade specialist with years of exporting experience, has traveled and lived abroad, worked closely with numerous international dealers and distributors, owned export-management company BritAm International, and attended several international trade shows. She has advised small- to medium-sized companies on their export practices and has been directly involved with exporting numerous shipments of U.S. manufactured goods to every continent around the world.
Before accepting her new position as international trade specialist for the September 2013 opening of the new International Trade Center (ITC) in Champaign, Cravens was employed at the GSI Group as an international logistics specialist, exporting product from Taylorville and Assumption to every continent of the world.
“Cravens provides in-depth advice on international trade techniques, export processes, and international market opportunities to local companies. In addition, she provides research support for new markets and products and referral assistance for export-related activities, licensing, certification, legal and financial consultation, logistics and customs issues,” Ouedraogo says.
News Source:Nancy Ouedraogo
News Writer:University of Illinois Extension
Pork tariffs sour industry outlook
URBANA, Ill. – The 2018 outlook early this year was for modest profitability. Now, it has shifted to losses. The reasons are clear: higher costs and lost exports due to a 25 percent tariff on U.S. pork implemented by China yesterday on April 2.
According to Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt, several forces are driving costs higher, but feed is the primary culprit. Since the start of the year, corn futures are about 27 cents per bushel higher and soybean meal futures are about $55 per ton higher. This means that feed cost are nearly $3 per live hundredweight higher, $1.75 of which is due to higher meal prices, and the remainder of which is due to the corn price.
Other costs of production are rising as well. Hurt explains that energy costs are expected to rise with the Energy Information Agency forecasting a 9 percent rise for on-road diesel prices this year and a 7 percent rise in retail gasoline prices.
“The tight labor market is expected to result in a 3 percent rise in wage rates, and interest rates are also rising,” Hurt adds. “The Chicago Fed reports the average interest rate on farm operating loans in 2017 was 4.9 percent – if that rate rises by 100 basis points this year to 5.9 percent, that is a 20 percent increase.”
Finally, the Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum will likely put upward pressure on metal prices that are important to buildings and equipment used in pork production.
The impacts look different from the Chinese side versus the U.S. side of the trade dispute. Hurt explains that for the Chinese, tariffs on U.S. pork appear to be a good strategic decision. Chinese pork imports were fairly large at $1.1 billion last year, so it gets the attention of the U.S. quickly as retaliation.
“The tariff will hurt the U.S. pork industry in key states that were generally strong Trump supporters, which gives a potential political victory to China,” Hurt says. “In addition, China has been increasing their own domestic production and was expected to import less pork this year anyway.”
China produced 97 percent of their own pork last year; the 1 percent of pork they currently buy from the U.S. can easily be replaced by pork from the European Union and Canada.
“If China buys no U.S. pork, it only has small implications for them,” Hurt explains. “While China seems to have chosen well by selecting pork for these tariffs, the negative implications are deeper for the U.S. pork industry. The view looks different from the Midwest pork center.”
The U.S. sold China 525 million pounds of pork in 2017, worth $1.1 billion. This was nine percent of the total export volume last year, but Chinese purchases represented only 2 percent of U.S. production. If we lose all of these sales, that could lower U.S. prices by about 4.4 percent, $2.20 per live hundredweight, or about $6 per head. On a carcass basis, the loss would equate to about $2.75 per carcass hundredweight.
“The 25 percent tariff will make our pork higher priced in China allowing pork from the European Union and Canada to be cheaper than U.S. origin,” Hurt adds. “We can anticipate losing most of the export business with China.”
“This is a measure of the biggest potential impact on prices, but the actual price reduction will most likely be less,” Hurt explains. “U.S. pork prices will drop due to the Chinese tariff and these lower U.S. prices will help sell some added pork domestically.”
In addition, the increase in EU and Canadian export volume to China means they will export less to other countries. Hurt says the U.S. could pick up some of that export business. “The point is that even if the U.S. lost all of the Chinese business, there will be some compensating increases in the volume sold domestically and to some alternative export destinations.”
According to Hurt, the outlook has weakened. On a live weight basis, hogs are now expected to average about $48.50 this year with cost now estimated near $53. Losses of $4.50 per live hundredweight or about $12.50 per head are expected. This hog price forecast is based on lean hog futures for the rest of the year on April 2. Current estimates are for losses per head in every quarter of 2018 are: 1st quarter -$7; 2nd -$11; 3rd -$5; and 4th -$27.
In addition, Hurt adds that more trouble over trade issues for the pork industry may loom in continuing NAFTA negotiations. While China bought two percent of U.S. production in 2017, Mexico purchased 7 percent and Canada an additional 2 percent. That is 9 percent of U.S. production that could be affected in NAFTA talks.
“The trade hammer has fallen on the U.S. pork industry,” Hurt says. Uncertainties surrounding NAFTA remain a grave concern as well.
“There remains much to be worked out in the early stages of these trade conflicts and U.S. agriculture must continue to argue for the merits of freer and fairer trade.
“If the current outlook shift toward losses prevails, all expansion projects still currently on the drawing board should be reconsidered. Further, if the current negative outlook prevails, some downsizing of the breeding herd into 2019 may be needed to move supply downward to provide breakeven prices,” Hurt concludes.
Australian vine can boost soybean yield, study says
URBANA, Ill. – Growing in its native Australia, the unobtrusive perennial vine Glycine tomentella could easily be overlooked. But the distant relative of soybean contains genetic resources that can substantially increase soybean yield, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.
“We saw yield increases of 3.5 to 7 bushels per acre in soybean lines derived from crossing with Glycine tomentella,” says Randall Nelson, study author and adjunct professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.
The discovery happened by accident. Researchers from U of I and the USDA Agricultural Research Service had been working for years to introduce disease-resistance genes from Glycine tomentella into soybean. After developing thousands of experimental lines, they finally managed to move genes from the Australian vine into a new soybean line that was resistant to soybean rust. But the researchers noticed something else.
“Some of these lines looked pretty good, so we decided to do some yield testing. This turned into a project for Ph.D. student Abraham Akpertey from Ghana. He found several lines that yielded significantly more than the soybean parent,” Nelson says. “We were very surprised. To look at it, Glycine tomentella has no agronomic characteristics – the seeds are less than a tenth the size of soybean seeds. We never expected to get high-yielding lines out of this cross.”
The process of getting Glycine tomentella genes into soybean is highly complex. The two plants are so distantly related that any mating would ordinarily result in aborted seeds. But Nelson’s collaborator and study co-author, Ram Singh, developed a growth hormone solution he sprays on the young pods to keep seeds from aborting.
“He rescues that little, immature seed, cultures it, and grows it into a plant. Then those are back-crossed repeatedly with the soybean variety ‘Dwight,’ until all of the Glycine tomentella chromosomes are lost and we recover a soybean plant,” Nelson explains.
The researchers don’t know what has been transferred from Glycine tomentella into the soybean genome. Aside from yield, some of the plants look and perform almost exactly the same as ‘Dwight.’
The group plans to map the genome of the promising plants, with the ultimate goal of identifying the genes responsible. Breeding efforts are already underway to develop higher-yielding lines since ‘Dwight’ is a 20-year-old cultivar.
“Last year, we released a material transfer agreement that would allow any soybean breeder to cross with these lines. I was surprised we didn’t get many requests, because these are such unique resources. With this yield information, I hope we can get more people interested,” Nelson says.
The article, “Genetic introgression from Glycine tomentella to soybean to increase seed yield,” is published in Crop Science [DOI: 10.2135/cropsci2017.07.0445]. Nelson’s co-authors include A. Akpertey, R. Singh, B. Diers, G. Graef, M. Mian, J. Shannon, A. Scaboo, M. Hudson, C. Thurber, and P. Brown. The work was supported by the United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program.
Illinois study examines energy and nutrient digestibility in wheat co-products fed to growing pigs
URBANA, Ill. – With feed costs and the worldwide demand for meat growing, livestock producers are increasingly turning to co-products from the ethanol and human food industries. Research from the University of Illinois is helping to determine the feed value of wheat middlings and red dog, two co-products of the wheat milling process that can be included in diets fed to pigs and other livestock.
Red dog consists mainly of the aleurone layer that lies between the bran and the endosperm, along with small particles of other parts of the kernel. Wheat middlings are granular particles of the wheat endosperm, bran, germ, and aleurone layer.
"The aleurone layer, bran, and germ contain most of the protein and fat in the wheat kernel," says Hans Stein, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I. "However, they also contain most of the fiber, which can make it harder for non-ruminant animals to digest the nutrients."
Stein, along with Gloria Casas and Diego Rodriguez, conducted an experiment to determine nutrient composition and digestibility of energy and nutrients in wheat middlings and red dog. They procured red dog from a supplier in Iowa and wheat middlings from ten suppliers in Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The wheat middlings samples contained an average of 17.67 percent crude protein, 4.07 percent fat, 20.28 percent starch, and 36.45 percent total fiber. Red dog, which contains more of the endosperm portion of the wheat kernel, was made up of 17 percent crude protein, 2.5 percent fat, 42.98 percent starch, and 13.9 percent total fiber.
Stein's team fed the wheat co-products to growing pigs and measured intake and output of energy and nutrients. The digestibility of energy, dry matter, and organic matter was greater in red dog than in wheat middlings. Red dog contained 3,408 kcal/kg DM digestible energy and 3,018 kcal/kg DM metabolizable energy, compared with a mean of 2,990 and 2,893 kcal/kg respectively in wheat middlings.
Stein notes that the sources of wheat middlings did not vary greatly in composition and digestibility of energy and nutrients, and offers possible explanations for the greater digestibility of energy and nutrients in red dog.
"The differences in concentration of starch and fiber are likely the main reason, but it's also possible that the smaller particle size in red dog increased the digestibility of energy."
The paper, "Nutrient composition and digestibility of energy and nutrients in wheat middlings and red dog fed to growing pigs," is published in the Journal of Animal Science. The National Pork Board of Des Moines, Iowa, provided funding for the study.
‘An Illinois Legacy Continues’ event celebrates Home Economics, Child Development Lab anniversaries
URBANA, Ill. – The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Child Development Laboratory and the 45th anniversary of the Home Economics Alumni Association during a day-long event on Friday, April 20, on the Urbana campus.
The event, “An Illinois Legacy Continues,” is open to friends of the College of ACES to reminisce, interact with students, meet college leadership, and hear from departmental and Child Development Laboratory faculty.
Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES, will open the event with a welcome at 11:30 a.m. in the ACES Library, Information, and Alumni Center in Urbana. A lunch will follow.
The day will also include tours of Bevier Hall food labs, Doris Christopher Hall, and the Child Development Laboratory. The event concludes at 5:30 p.m.
For more information, visit https://acesalumni.illinois.edu/illinois-legacy-continues.
The nationally recognized home economics program at U of I provided a college degree for thousands of young women through the 20th century. Faculty in home economics revolutionized the understanding of family life and created the scientific study of child development, nutrition, family economics, sanitation, and many other topics. The tradition of the scientific study of children, families, nutrition, and communities continues in the College of ACES today.
Illinois researchers receive $1 million to study bioenergy crops
URBANA, Ill. – The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture has announced a grant for $1 million to support research led by a University of Illinois scientist. The research will address the need for better-adapted and higher-yielding biomass cultivars ready to plug into the biofuel supply chain in the United States.
“Currently, there is only one genotype of Miscanthus x giganteus (‘Illinois’) available in the U.S. for farmers to grow as a biomass crop,” says Erik Sacks, plant geneticist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and principal investigator on the grant. “This cultivar is insufficiently winter-hardy in the northern Midwest, and flowers too early in the southern U.S. to achieve high yields.
“If we don’t have the right varieties, that’s going to be a really limiting factor in our ability to produce the biomass feedstocks needed for conversion to bioenergy or other bioproducts. The varieties have to be regionally adapted,” he adds.
Sacks and collaborators at U of I, Alabama A&M University, and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will breed new miscanthus cultivars from an extensive repository of plant materials collected around the world. They will also field test already developed hybrids that show promise for both cold tolerance and high yields.
An important aspect of the work is the use of genomic selection tools, which will allow the team to make decisions about desired traits without having to grow plants to maturity. That process, on which traditional plant breeding is based, is extremely time-consuming and requires a lot of trial-and-error.
“We will use a statistical model that incorporates information from the miscanthus genome to predict phenotypic values, such as winter hardiness, flowering time, and biomass,” says Alex Lipka, assistant professor of biometry in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-investigator on the grant.
“The cool thing is that if we develop a really good statistical model, breeders will be able to make selections based on predicted phenotypic values before plants are even planted. It could substantially speed up the breeding cycle.”
The grant also includes an educational component for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. Investigators at Alabama A&M and HudsonAlpha will administer a short course on genomics, and graduate students will be funded on the project.
“We will educate and inspire the next generation of plant genomicists, with a focus on underrepresented minority groups and women,” Sacks says. “We hope to get the next generation on a path to help feed, clothe, and power the world sustainably.”
Ultimately, the team believes the combination of faster breeding cycles, better-adapted cultivars, and training opportunities will overcome the hurdles the biomass industry faces today, resulting in a stronger bioeconomy in America.
Additional co-investigators include Kankshita Swaminathan and Sara Cooper of HudsonAlpha, and Ernst Cebert and Venkateswara Sripathi in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Alabama A&M University.