College of ACES
College News

Lulu Rodriguez receives research honor

Published June 19, 2017
lulu rodriquez

URBANA, Ill. – Lulu Rodriguez, professor and director of the agricultural communications program at the University of Illinois, received an Excellence in Research Award on June 15. It was presented by the international organization, Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), at an annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.          

Rodriguez was recognized for being among the most active and productive communications researchers in the subject areas of food, natural resources, renewable energy, rural development, and others related to agriculture. Through her research she is contributing to understanding the effects of science and risk communication interventions on public knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. A companion research stream involves evaluating and improving media performance in communicating science and risk.          

Her studies address questions central to some of today’s most vigorous debates and public issues, domestically and globally. For example, rural women in Uganda are benefitting from her research, which is helping lay the groundwork for empowering these vital agricultural producers and improving the lives of rural families.          

She was also recognized for strengthening the research base of the agricultural communications program while enhancing student participation in research. The program she leads has been offered jointly by the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and College of Media since 1962.


News Source:

Jim Evans

News Writer:

Jim Evans

Unusual soybean coloration sheds a light on gene silencing

Published June 19, 2017
saddle patterned soybeans

URBANA, Ill. – Today’s soybeans are typically golden yellow, with a tiny blackish mark where they attach to the pod. In a field of millions of beans, nearly all of them will have this look. Occasionally, however, a bean will turn up half-black, with a saddle pattern similar to a black-eyed pea.

”The yellow color is derived from a natural process known as gene silencing, in which genes interact to turn off certain traits,” explains Lila Vodkin, professor emerita in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. “Scientists make use of this process frequently to design everything from improved crops to medicines, but examples of naturally occurring gene silencing – also known as RNA interference, or RNAi – are limited. A better understanding of this process can explain how you can manipulate genes in anything from soybeans to humans.”

The RNAi pathway was discovered about 20 years ago as a naturally occurring process in a tiny roundworm. The discovery and follow-up work showing its biomedical potential won scientists the Nobel Prize in 2006. In plants, RNAi was discovered in petunias. When breeders tried to transform one gene to cause brighter pinks and purples, they wound up with white flowers instead. The gene for flower color had been silenced.

“Before they were domesticated, soybeans were black or brown due to the different anthocyanin pigments in the seed coat,” says Sarah Jones, a research specialist working with Vodkin on the study. “Breeders got rid of the dark pigments because they can discolor the oil or soybean meal during extraction processes.”

Vodkin clarifies, “The yellow color was a naturally occurring RNAi mutation that happened spontaneously, probably at the beginning of agriculture, like 10,000 years ago. People saw the yellow beans as different. They picked them up, saved them, and cultivated them. In the germplasm collections of the wild soybean, Glycine sojae, you don’t find the yellow color, only darkly pigmented seeds.”

Previous work from the team showed that yellow soybeans result from a naturally occurring gene silencing process involving two genes. Essentially, one of the genes blocks production of the darker pigment’s precursors. But the researchers weren’t sure why black pigments sometimes reappear, as in saddle-patterned beans. Now they know.

Vodkin and her team searched for beans with unusual pigmentation in the USDA soybean germplasm collection, housed at U of I. The collection contains thousands of specimens, representing much of the genetic diversity in domesticated soybean and its wild relatives.

“We requested beans with this black saddle pattern,” Jones recalls. “We wanted to know if they all get this pattern from the same gene.” Some of the samples had been collected as far back as 1945. 

The team used modern genomic sequencing techniques, quickly sifting through some 56,000 protein-coding genes to identify the one responsible for the pattern. The lead author, Young Cho, made the discovery as a graduate student when he noticed a defect in the Argonaute5 gene. The team looked at additional beans with the saddle and found that the Argonaute5 gene was defective in a slightly different way in each of them.

“That’s how you prove you found the right gene,” Vodkin says, “because of these independent mutations happening at different spots right in that same gene.”

When the Argonaute5 gene is defective, the silencing process – which normally blocks the dark pigment and results in yellow beans – can no longer be carried out. The gene defect explains why the dark pigments show up in the saddle beans.

Before the team’s discovery, there were very few examples of how gene interactions work to achieve silencing in naturally occurring systems. Today, bioengineers use genetic engineering technologies to silence genes to produce a desired outcome, whether it’s flower color, disease resistance, improved photosynthesis, or any number of novel applications.

“The yellow color in soybeans could have been engineered, if it hadn’t occurred naturally,” Vodkin says, “but it would have cost millions of dollars and every yellow soybean would be a genetically modified organism. Nature engineered it first.” She says this study also emphasizes the value of the soybean germplasm collection, which preserves diversity for research and breeding purposes. 

The article, “Mutations in Argonaute5 illuminate epistatic interactions of the K1 and I loci leading to saddle seed color patterns in Glycine max,” is published in The Plant Cell. The study’s lead author, Young Cho, is now a postdoctoral researcher for the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. The work was funded by the United Soybean Board, the USDA, and the Illinois Soybean Association.

Forum to discuss best practice for food/farm policy relationship

Published June 15, 2017
capitol building

URBANA, Ill.  – The nutrition and agriculture communities are two of the key influencers in the development of federal policies, as well as in assuring a nutritious food supply. Debate continues on the merits of splitting feeding and farm legislation, while other stakeholders discuss the many issues that unite the two efforts.

The June 21 Farm Foundation Forum, Nutrition and Agriculture—A Natural Partnership, will explore areas for collaboration in greater detail. The forum will be from 9  to 11 a.m. EDT in the Holeman Lounge of the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C.

Anyone interested in agricultural, food, and rural policy are welcome to attend in person or live via an audiocast.

Panel members presenting perspectives on the issue will be:

Craig Gundersen, Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy at the University of Illinois in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Karen Siebert, a public policy advisor for Harvesters--The Community Food Network, a regional food bank; and Skye Cornell, chief programs officer at Wholesome Wave.

Farm Foundation President Constance Cullman will moderate the discussion. After comments by the panelists, the floor will be opened for questions and discussion.

There is no charge to participate in the June 21 Forum, but registration is requested, whether attending the forum in person or participating in the live audiocast.

The Forum: Farm Foundation, NFP organizes these public forums to engage all stakeholders in informed dialogue on food, agricultural, and rural policies. Participants examine current policies, explore and analyze alternative policy options, and give voice to new proposals.

Audio from the session will also be posted on the Farm Foundation website.



Foundation Supports Crops in Silico

Published June 15, 2017
Matthew Turk and Amy Marshal Colón (photo by AJ Christensen, Advanced Visualization Laboratory, NCSA)

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) has awarded Principal Investigator Amy Marshall-Colón, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois, $274,000 to continue her research in support of Crops in silico (Cis), a project to develop a suite of virtual plant models that may help resolve a growing gap between food supply and demand in the face of global climate change. She is collaborating with Stephen P. Long, Gutgsell Endowed University Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology.

As the planet warms, growing environments around the world are changing faster than traditional crop breeding programs can create new well-adapted varieties. Fully realized, Cis will give crop researchers a tool to examine the effects of environmental challenges on a molecular, cellular, and organ level within a plant to determine the best targets for genetic engineering.

“Science is accelerating faster than ever before, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is committed to harnessing cutting-edge science for the benefit of the agricultural system,” FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey said. “Crops in silico will integrate some of today’s most advanced plant models, providing new and exciting insights into how a plant functions that will undoubtedly accelerate our ability to improve plants. I look forward to the results of this exciting project.”

The ability to computationally mimic the growth, development, and response of crops to the environment will allow researchers to conduct many more experiments than can realistically be achieved in the field.

Marshall-Colón will collaborate with Long; Matthew Turk, Assistant Professor of Information Sciences, Assistant Research Professor of Astronomy and National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Research Scientist; Christine Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the National Data Service; and Jonathan Lynch, University Distinguished Professor of Plant Science at Penn State University.

The team will work to integrate above- and below-ground models of plants to create never-before-seen “whole views” of them. Then, they will subject these newly built virtual plants to computer-simulated extreme growing conditions — from flood to severe drought to increased ambient carbon dioxide — and compare the model’s predicted plant reaction to observed responses from field studies. This will help “dial in” the model’s accuracy.

Beyond a technological breakthrough, the Cis team also aims to achieve a research community shift.

“We believe Crops in silico will unite largely isolated efforts into a connected and collaborative community that can take full advantage of advances in computation science and mechanistic understanding of plant processes and their responses to the environment,” Marshall-Colón said.

The Crops in silico project was seed-funded in 2015 by a $350,000 grant from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign awarded to Long. NCSA recently awarded additional seed funding for Cis to Turk. The awards from iSEE and NCSA will provide matching funds to support the Cis team and its work under the FFAR grant, the first given to a University of Illinois researcher.

Read more on the project page on iSEE’s website, or visit the Cis homepage at

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established by bipartisan congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today’s food and agriculture challenges. FFAR leverages public and private resources to increase the scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships critical to enhancing sustainable production of nutritious food for a growing global population. The FFAR Board of Directors is chaired by Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum and includes ex officio representation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. Learn more at


News Source:

Julie Reynes, 202-285-0350

Genes and the environment? Study looks at factors, patterns between children and caregivers that lead to obesity risk

Published June 15, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – In the preschool years, children begin to learn from their environment about self-regulation—both in regards to food choices and how to deal with their emotions. When children don’t learn effective self-regulation skills during those early critical years, studies have shown they may be at a greater risk of becoming obese.

One factor that has been linked to childhood obesity is restrictive feeding practices by primary caregivers, the implication being that it may interfere with a child’s ability to learn to self-regulate food intake.

Not surprisingly, when a child is overweight, parents tend to use more controlling, restrictive feeding practices, and parent-child communication about weight and restrictive feeding is often negative, another factor that increases obesity risk.

A new study from the University of Illinois is showing that a child’s genetics, related to emotion and cognition, may also play a role in this pattern.

Finding a way to break the patterns that lead to childhood obesity is not about blaming parents, but encouraging parents to find new strategies in dealing with children’s emotions, says Kelly Bost, a professor of child development in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the U of I.

“Some of the things parents do, they may not think are related to how children are developing their eating habits. The ways parents respond or get stressed when children get upset are related in an indirect way,” Bost says. “The way we respond to that emotion can help children to develop skills for themselves, to self-regulate, so that everyday challenges don’t become overwhelming things that they have to manage with respect to food.

“Also, when parents offer food to children whenever they are upset, children may learn to cope with their negative emotions by overeating, and they start to develop this relationship with food early in life; eating—especially comfort food—brings a temporary soothing. People intuitively understand that.”

Bost explains that literature has shown that parents who use restrictive feeding practices have children who are more likely to be obese. But longitudinal studies have also shown that, first, parents notice and are concerned about their child’s weight, and then engage in restrictive feeding. “Then it becomes more or less a cycle,” she says. “This pattern develops over time. We were interested in looking at what could affect this pattern of behavior, so we could identity some factors that may either exacerbate this pattern or reduce its effect.”

In a study published in Pediatric Obesity, Bost, Margarita Teran-Garcia, Sharon Donovan, and Barbara Fiese, all of the U of I, identify a three-way interaction between child’s body mass index (BMI), the child’s genotype, and ways in which parents respond to their child’s negative emotions in the prediction of restrictive feeding. Interestingly, looking at a child’s genetics is helping researchers to better understand how children are likely to respond to stress.

Using data from the STRONG Kids cohort, the researchers examined information about parent feeding styles, and how parents of preschool-age children (2.5 to 3 years) typically react to their children’s negative emotions. The researchers looked at these factors combined with child genetic data.

In particular, the research team was interested in the COMT gene, a gene known for its significant impact on emotion and cognition. This gene produces a protein with enzymatic function that helps in the regulation of the levels of a neurotransmitter (dopamine) in the brain. The function of the COMT system could be affected by several factors, one of them is the changes produced by genetics in the form of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). There are many types of SNPs; some affect the amino acid composition of the protein and, depending on the change, could increase or decrease the function of the COMT system and therefore the amount of dopamine that accumulates in the brain.

The researchers studied a SNP that changes one amino acid in position 158 of the protein, and the common form of valine (VAL) changes to methionine (MET). “We all carry two copies of genetic information—one from mom, and one from dad—so a little amino acid change could have great consequences,” Bost explains. “In a person with Val/Val, the COMT system works three to four times faster than those with other combinations do, and therefore accumulates less dopamine in the front of the brain.

“Children who have at least one copy of Val tend to be more resilient emotionally. Those who are Met carriers have the propensity to be more reactive to negative emotion or stress.”

The researchers are bringing parenting literature together with genetics.

“We know that how parents respond to their children’s negative emotions influences the development of children’s response patterns over time. There is a whole body of literature linking emotion dysregulation to emotional overeating, dysregulation of metabolism, and risk for obesity, even starting at early ages. We wanted to begin to integrate information from these various fields to get a more holistic view of gene-environment interactions at this critical time in life for developing self-regulation.”

Data was collected from a group of 126 children. Parents filled out questionnaires, rating how they typically respond to their children in common situations, such as a child becoming upset at a birthday party. Saliva samples provided the genetic information.

Bost and colleagues found that parents most likely to use restrictive feeding were those who reported more frequent use of unresponsive stress-regulating strategies with their children—punishing or dismissive—and had children who were higher weight status and homozygous for the Met allele. But the same was not necessarily true for children who were Val carriers.

The findings support Bost and the team’s hypothesis that parenting approaches combined with a child’s genetic propensities modify associations between child BMI status and restrictive feeding.

Bost adds that the unique part of the study is that it shows that the relation between a child’s higher weight status and use of restrictive feeding by the parent is influenced by both general parenting practices related to stress regulation and children’s genetic propensities for emotion reactivity.

Developing interventions that inform parents about emotion regulation is important, Bost says, and should include how to use responsive strategies in challenging situations, and how children may also respond to strategies in different ways. While there may interventions around teaching parents to provide good nutrition or how to plan the meal so mealtimes will be less stressful, she explains that parents should also learn emotion regulation strategies in response to children who become more emotionally dysregulated, are eating to soothe, and especially if the parents are restrictive feeding. 

She adds, “Sometimes the way parents respond is based on their own stress, belief systems, or the way they were raised. Educating parents from a developmental perspective can help them to respond to their children’s emotions in ways that will help their children learn to self-regulate their emotions and their food intake.

“Children respond to us in different ways based on their own temperament, genotype, and history of interactions. Responsive parenting involves an understanding of what stress-reducing approaches are most effective for a particular child.” 

“Child body mass index, genotype and parenting in the prediction of restrictive feeding,” is published in Pediatric Obesity. Co-authors include Kelly Bost, Margarita Teran-Garcia, Sharon Donovan, Barbara Fiese, and the STRONG Kids Team, all of the University of Illinois. Bost is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Consumer Sciences at U of I.

This research was funded by the Illinois Council for Agriculture Research, the University of Illinois Health and Wellness Initiative, the United States Department of Agriculture (Hatch ILLU-793-392 and Hatch ILLU-793-328), and a faculty seed grant as part of the National Institute for Agriculture Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program grant (2011-67001-30101) to the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois.

News Source:

Kelly Bost, 217-244-6673