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The time is RIPE to transform agriculture and feed the world

Published September 15, 2017
Steve Long and Don Ort
Researchers led by Stephen Long (left) and Don Ort (right) will continue transformative work to increase yields of food crops for farmers worldwide through Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency with the support of a five–year, $45-million reinvest

URBANA, Ill. – Political and agricultural leaders gather at the University of Illinois today to see transformative work by scientists in the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) research project, which has already demonstrated yield increases of 20 percent. A $45 million, five-year reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) will enable the researchers to continue their work to address the global food challenge.

“Today's report on world hunger and nutrition from five UN agencies reinforces our mission to work doggedly to provide new means to eradicate world hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and beyond,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic at Illinois. “This investment is timely. Annual yield gains are stagnating and means to achieve substantial improvement must be developed now if we are to provide sufficient food for a growing and increasingly urban world population when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate.”

“While no single strategy is going to get us there, our successes in redesigning photosynthesis are exciting,” said RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort, USDA/ARS Photosynthesis Research Unit and the Robert Emerson Professor in Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at Illinois. “RIPE has validated that photosynthesis can be engineered to be more efficient to help close the gap between the trajectory of yield increase and the trajectory of demand increase.”

Building on half a century of photosynthesis research at Illinois, including several landmark discoveries enabled by state and federal partnerships, RIPE researchers simulated the 170-step process of photosynthesis. They used their computer models to identify seven potential pipelines to improve photosynthesis—and with the support of an initial $25 million, five-year grant from the Gates Foundation—began work in 2012 to try to turn their ideas into sustainable yield increases.

Last year, in a study published in the journal Science, the team demonstrated that one of these approaches could increase crop productivity by as much as 20 percent – a dramatic increase over typical annual yield gains of one percent or less. Two other RIPE pipelines have now led to even greater yield improvements in greenhouse and preliminary field trials.

“Our modeling predicts that several of these improvements can be combined to achieve additive yield increases, providing real hope that a 50 percent yield increase in just three decades is possible,” Long said. “With the reinvestment, a central priority will be to move these improved photosynthesis traits into commodity crops of the developed world, like soybeans, as well as crops that matter in the developing world, including cassava and cowpeas.”

RIPE and its funders will ensure that their high-yielding food crops are globally available and affordable for smallholder farmers to help feed the world’s hungriest and reduce poverty, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

But we still have a long road ahead of us, Long said.

“It takes about fifteen years from discovery until crops with these transformative biotechnologies are available for farmers,” he said. “It will therefore be well into the 2030s before such superior crops are seen at scale in farmers’ fields.”

Long and Ort are also part of the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois.

Got a picky eater? How ‘nature and nurture’ may be influencing eating behavior in young children

Published September 14, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – For most preschool-age children, picky eating is just a normal part of growing up. But for others, behaviors such as insisting on only eating their favorite food item—think chicken nuggets at every meal—or refusing to try something new might lead to the risk of being over- or underweight, gastrointestinal distress, or other eating disorders later in childhood.

Parents and other caregivers often deem children as being “picky eaters” for a variety of reasons, but there is not a hard-fast definition in place for research. Nutrition and family studies researchers at the University of Illinois have collaborated for the last 10 years to understand the characteristics of picky eaters and to identify possible correlations of the behavior.

In a new study, the researchers wanted to see if chemosensory genes might have a possible relationship to picky eating behavior in young children. They found that certain genes related to taste perception may be behind some of these picky eating habits. 

“For most children, picky eating is a normal part of development,” says Natasha Cole, a doctoral student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I and lead author of the study. “But for some children, the behavior is more worrisome.” Cole, also part of the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program at U of I, hopes the research can help identify the determinants of picky eating behavior in early childhood.

Leading up to the taste perception genes study, the U of I researchers identified common characteristics of picky eaters, ages 2 to 4 years, and divided these “types” of picky eaters into distinct groups. Further research from the team looked at how parenting styles may affect picky eating behavior and whether children exhibit picky eating behavior both at home and in childcare—homecare or center-based—situations.

“This has kind of been an evolution of the research, seeing an interaction rather than just seeing the child as on its own, which, when we first started trying to define a picky eater, we were just looking at the child,” explains Soo-Yeun Lee, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. “As we were moving into different parts of the research we realized, it’s not just the child, it’s the caregiver and the environment, as well.”

Now, they are looking at the influence of “nature and nurture” on a child’s picky eating behavior.

“Natasha is actually taking a deeper look at the child and genetic predisposition,” Lee says. “She is looking at sensory taste genes and also at some of the behavioral genes that have been highlighted in the literature. She has been looking at the whole field of picky eating research, and classifying it based on ‘nature vs. nurture.’ Nature is the genetic disposition and nurture is the environment and the caregivers.”

The idea, Lee explains, is based on an orchid/dandelion hypothesis. “There are some genes—the behavioral genes—that make the child more prone and more sensitive to being more behaviorally problematic when external influences are present that may not work out their way. That’s the orchid concept. This may be a sensitive child who may not be as resilient with negative feedback or negative mealtime strategies given by parents, versus a dandelion child who is very robust and resistant to whatever, nurture or not, is given to them.

“There is that fine line, and it’s not just the nurture, the environment, that’s influencing that, but it’s the child’s susceptibility to the environmental cues as well,” she adds.

For the study, the researchers collected information about breastfeeding history and picky eating behaviors, such as limited food variety, food refusals, and struggles for control, for 153 preschoolers, as reported by their caregivers. Saliva samples were also taken for DNA extraction and genotyping.

The researchers looked at genetic variation in single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”) from five candidate genes related to taste perception. Of the five, they found that two had an association with picky eating behaviors in the preschoolers. One (TAS2R38) was associated with limited dietary variety, and the other (CA6) with struggles for control during mealtime.

Interestingly, both the TAS2R38 and CA6 genes are possibly related to bitter taste perception. So it is not surprising that the children who are genetically “bitter-sensitive” may be more likely to be picky eaters (i.e. turning down Brussel sprouts or broccoli). Other chemosensory factors, such as odor, color, and texture, may affect eating behaviors as well. Further studies are needed to see how children’s food preferences are affected by the look or smell of their food.

Along with continuing to look at genetic associations with picky eating, Cole is also interested in understanding how picky eating behaviors start even in children before 2 years of age. Most picky eating research has focused on children over 2 years, but eating habits begin to form before then. She and the research team recently published another study that reviews the research literature on picky eating in children younger than 2 years. The study discusses picky eating associations from an ecological model, starting with the child, and moving out to the child’s environment.

“By two years, children know how to eat and have pretty set habits,” Cole says. “There is a huge gap in the research when children transition from a milk-based diet to foods that the rest of the family eats.”

Cole adds that the research involving children under 2 years shows that 22 percent of those children are perceived as picky eaters by their parents or caregivers. Surprisingly, she also found that each additional month of the child’s age was associated with an increase in food-related fussiness. “So a child could go from rarely being a picky eater to being a frequent picky eater in less than a year,” she says.  

Collecting and integrating this comprehensive information from “Cell to Society” is critical to better understand nature-nurture interactions, as many questions in this area remain unsolved, explains Margarita Teran-Garcia, an assistant professor in nutritional sciences, human development and family studies, and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the U of I, and co-author of the paper.

“Variants in chemosensory genes are associated with picky eating behavior in preschool-age children,” is published in the Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics. Co-authors include Natasha Chong Cole, Anthony A. Wang, Sharon M. Donovan, Soo-Yeun Lee, Margarita Teran-Garcia, and the STRONG Kids team.

Funding was provided in part by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as by grants from the Illinois Council for Agriculture Research and the University of Illinois Health and Wellness Initiative.

Teachable, ultra-compact, autonomous phenotyping robot introduced to investors, market

Published September 12, 2017
TerraSentia robot
TerraSentia robot

URBANA, Ill. – Investors and executives in the agricultural industry are getting a first look at TerraSentia, a new-to-the-market agricultural robot that autonomously measures crop traits, developed at the University of Illinois. TerraSentia is being unveiled on Sept. 11 to 13 at the Ag Innovation Showcase in St. Louis, bringing agricultural innovators together with investors to help realize the future of the industry.
The start-up company EarthSense, Inc. announced it has filed a provisional patent and is now taking pre-orders for the agricultural robot TerraSentia, which will be ready for the 2018 growing season. Developed at the University of Illinois, with support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), the robot will cost early adopters $4,999 – a fraction of the cost of hiring laborers to measure germination, conduct stand counts, and other monotonous jobs.
The robot’s developer, Girish Chowdhary, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at U of I, envisions a fleet of these ultra-compact robots roving fields doing simple tasks that will free up precious human capital to work on the big picture.
“Our robot will do the exhausting, time consuming, error-prone part – collecting field data – giving plant breeders and scientists more time to analyze it and make key decisions,” said Chowdhary. “What would take a team of researchers tromping through fields with tape measures and other tools to do in several days, our robot can do in several hours.”
Currently, the robot can autonomously count plants and measure stem width to help estimate biomass for corn, sorghum, and soybeans. Work is underway to teach it to measure stem, angle plant height, corn ear height, leaf area index, early vigor, and biomass, and to identify diseases.
Early adopters who order by Nov. 31, 2017, will get 100 hours of one-on-one consulting to teach their robot to detect and quantify other traits that drive their business or research. They will also benefit from an exclusive buyback program and a one-year, all-inclusive warranty.
TerraSentia comes equipped with two visual cameras, a tablet app featuring first-person view, and secure cloud software used to store data and teach the robot. The ultra-compact robot weighs less than 15 pounds and is just 11 inches wide to fit in most crop rows. At 8.5 hours per charge, the robot’s battery lasts a full workday.
The robot can be further customized with GPS to enable autonomous navigation and custom mounts for additional sensors including multi-spectral cameras, hyperspectral cameras, stereoscopic and structured light cameras, and LIDAR.
For more information or to order TerraSentia, contact EarthSense, Inc. CEO Chinmay Soman via email at or visit

Financial planning conference Sept. 29

Published September 12, 2017
financial planning graphic

URBANA, Ill. – For students, professionals, and others who are interested in learning more about a career in financial planning, a half-day conference is offered on Sept. 29 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the IHotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

The conference will begin with a presentation by a financial planning team of three University of Illinois students who recently qualified to compete in the National Financial Planning Association Conference in Nashville next month. The students, Eric Schaefer, Michael Sacco, and Seth Elam, are all seniors in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Their team coach, Craig Lemoine, is the director of the department’s Financial Planning Program.

“I’m extremely proud of this team of students,” Lemoine says. “They worked very hard over the summer and it paid off with their team selected as one of eight teams in this national competition. The first week in October they’ll be heading to Nashville for a Jeopardy-style oral test and other ways to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the field of financial planning.”

Lemoine, who is a Certified Financial Planner and the conference coordinator, will give a presentation later in the morning. Topics will include: irrational budgeting, thinking and risk processing in the minds of clients and their financial advisers; and the future of financial planning.

Another presenter is an alumnus of the College of ACES program. Altan Wuliji received a bachelor’s degree from U of I and a master’s degree from Texas Tech University. He is also a Certified Financial Planner, currently working as an investment consultant with DiMeo Schneider & Associates in Chicago. Wuliji’s presentation is on how to build portfolios in today’s financial planning marketplace, with 2017’s geopolitical pressures, natural disasters, overvaluations, and political risk.

The day will include an opportunity for networking with other professionals over a box lunch. For the full itinerary and to register, visit the conference website. For questions, contact Craig Lemoine at


News Source:

Craig Lemoine

Calcium to phosphorus ratio in pig diets established by new study

Published September 12, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – The amount of digestible calcium included in pig diets has a direct impact on phosphorus digestibility, but the optimum ratio between the two minerals has not yet been found. In a recent study from the University of Illinois, scientists have established a first approximation of that ratio for 25 to 50 kilogram pigs.

“Because calcium is an inexpensive ingredient, the thinking was that we could add as much as we wanted. We discovered several years ago that may not be a good approach, because if you increase calcium in the diet, you reduce absorption of phosphorus,” says Hans Stein, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I. “As phosphorus availability goes down, so does the pigs’ growth performance. Feed intake, and therefore body weight gain and feed efficiency, goes down.”

Stein and his collaborators formulated 20 corn-soybean meal-based diets, varying in calcium and phosphorus concentration, and fed them to 240 pigs over four weeks. Diets were formulated to contain 0.15, 0.31, 0.39, or 0.47 percent standardized total tract digestible (STTD) phosphorus and 0.13, 0.27, 0.42, 0.57, or 0.72 percent STTD calcium. These values represented 48 to 152 percent of the STTD phosphorus requirement and 27 to 173 percent of the total calcium requirement.

By the end of the four-week trial, the researchers were able to determine pig growth performance, in terms of average daily gain and gain to feed, as well as incorporation of the minerals into bone.

In a separate trial, 120 pigs were fed the same 20 diets for two weeks. For these animals, urine, fecal, and blood samples were analyzed for calcium and phosphorus concentrations.

“The results confirmed what we’ve seen before. If you feed too much calcium, in particular with low or marginal phosphorus in the diet, pig growth performance goes down,” Stein says. “We still need to do more work to determine the optimum ratio between the two, but we have definitely confirmed that the ratio is very important.”

Stein says most pig diets are currently formulated with marginal phosphorus, partly due to cost of the ingredient and partly because producers want to avoid having to mitigate excreted phosphorus in manure. But diets formulated with too much calcium or too little phosphorus could be reducing pig growth performance.

“If someone asked us today, we would say that to maximize average daily gain and gain to feed for 25 to 50 kg pigs, the ratio of STTD calcium to STTD phosphorus should be between 1.16:1 and 1.43:1. However, it is possible that we will have to change that ratio as we get more data. It is still very early,” Stein says.

The article, “Requirements for digestible calcium by 25 to 50 kg pigs at different dietary concentrations of phosphorus as indicated by growth performance, bone ash concentration, and calcium and phosphorus balances,” is published in the Journal of Animal Science. Stein’s co-authors include J.C. Gonzalez-Vega, C.L. Walk, and M.R. Murphy.

News Source:

Hans Stein, 217-333-0013