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USDA invests in research to develop genetic control of waterhemp

Published March 28, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has announced a $500,000 grant to University of Illinois researchers in the Department of Crop Sciences. The project will lay the groundwork towards developing a new type of weed control system, known as genetic control, for waterhemp and Palmer amaranth.

“Currently, we use chemical, physical, cultural, and biological control strategies to reduce weed populations. A genetic control strategy would be a way to introduce specific genetic controls that could change and ultimately eliminate the population,” says Pat Tranel, molecular weed scientist, interim head of the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, and principal investigator on the grant.

The idea is to use genetic modification techniques to change the sex ratio – the ratio of males to females – in waterhemp and Palmer amaranth populations. Theoretically, with the right genetic manipulation, every mating would result in only male offspring. If this occurred over multiple generations, every individual in these populations would eventually be male. Reproduction would cease and populations would crash.

The concept is similar to a controversial strategy being tested for mosquito control. In that case, when genetically modified males are released and mate with normal females, the offspring die before maturity. The strategy, according to proponents, could reduce incidence of Zika, malaria, and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Tranel says a similar strategy in waterhemp and Palmer amaranth could avoid major crop losses as the herbicide-resistant weeds become less and less responsive to existing control strategies. But he is quick to point out that there is a lot of work to do before he and his team can even test the proof-of-concept.

The researchers first need to identify the genes controlling inheritance of gender in both waterhemp and Palmer amaranth. They already stumbled across a location in the genome of certain waterhemp females that leads to non-viable male offspring, but they still haven’t confirmed exactly how it works or developed the technology to put this gene region into another plant.   

Even if the project and future research result in a working genetic control strategy for the weeds, Tranel says producers will still need to rely on proactive management using all available tools.

“You’d first use all your normal weed control practices to get rid of as many waterhemp plants as you can. Let’s say you end up with five females per acre that are going to seed; now you actually have a chance of swamping out and pollinating those five females,” he says. “I’d never see this as replacing all your other strategies.”

Illinois receives USDA grant to predict hybrid corn performance

Published March 27, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – University of Illinois corn breeder Martin Bohn has received a nearly $500,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund research that will improve breeding efficiency.

“We are going to use the maize genome with all its intricacies to make breeding faster, more efficient, and more predictive,” says Bohn, an associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

Corn breeding isn’t straightforward, thanks to its particularly diverse and variable genetic material. Bohn compares the sequence of genes on a chromosome to a string of pearls. In most organisms, we expect the pearls in one individual to match up with those in another, in terms of where they are and what information they contain. But that’s not the case with corn.

“When we compare two inbred lines of corn, there is often a significant number of genes present in one inbred line but not the other. And some individuals might have just one copy of a particular gene, while other individuals carry multiple copies. It’s all very complex,” Bohn says.

The task of a corn breeder is to find two inbred lines that, when crossed, produce a high-yielding hybrid. As the term “inbred line” suggests, the parents of the hybrids are self-pollinated and fertilized to ensure they have certain desirable traits. But inbreeding leads to problems, including small stature and low yields.

When two inbred lines are crossed, the negative effects of inbreeding can be reversed and the resulting hybrids are tall, vigorous, and highly productive. This phenomenon is known as heterosis.

“Finding the right combination of inbreds that produce superior hybrids is expensive, time consuming, and is a process that requires a lot of trial and error,” Bohn says. 

Bohn and his team have been working intensively to understand modern, elite corn hybrids for more than a decade. “We have tested a large number of inbreds and their hybrids for yield, nutritional value, grain-processing characteristics, bioenergy, root complexity, and disease resistance. We looked at a lot of things,” he says.

Now that the corn genome has been sequenced, Bohn and his collaborators on the grant – Mark Mikel and Alex Lipka from U of I, and Candice Hirsch from the University of Minnesota – will put corn characteristics data together with genomic information to develop new tools that will add precision in predicting hybrid performance.

They will partner with major corn breeding companies to test the performance of their experimental hybrids in 20 locations around the Midwest.

At the end of three years, Bohn hopes to have a tool that will cut out much of the trial-and-error involved in traditional corn breeding, but he says it’s only the beginning. “The next step is to develop a breeding strategy that takes phenotypic, genomic, and environmental data, together with crop growth models to predict how hybrids will perform. But that’s for another grant proposal.”

News Source:

Martin Bohn, 217-244-2536

USDA invests in research on environmental benefits of woody fruit, nut crops

Published March 27, 2018
windbreak trees

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture has announced a grant for $460,000 to support research led by University of Illinois scientists Sarah Taylor Lovell, Andrew Margenot, and Alexandra Harmon-Threatt.

Lovell, an agroecologist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, has been investigating the benefits of what she calls multifunctional woody polyculture for years. These are mixtures of woody perennial plants – trees and shrubs – that not only create habitat, regulate nutrient cycles, and hold soil and carbon, but also provide harvestable and profitable edible products.

“You’re getting all these benefits, plus the added yield component,” she says. “In this project, we’re asking whether there’s a downside ecologically to choosing this productive type of system instead of traditional species in a Conservation Reserve Program.”

Lovell and her co-investigators don’t think they’ll see a downside, and they’re hoping that hard evidence could convince some farmers to adopt the new practice and retain it after their CRP contracts are up. At that point – 10 to 15 years after planting – the trees and shrubs would be producing fruits and nuts, which the farmer could sell for profit.

The team plans to compare existing 2- to 3-year-old woody polyculture systems with CRP windbreak plantings of the same age, and with corn/soybean production systems. They will investigate insect diversity, pollination, and soil physical health in the different systems, and will also estimate fruit/nut yields and carbon sequestration in woody biomass.

“The focus is on soil physical health because a big benefit of CRP – compared to corn/soy – is in mitigating erosion and compaction. Perennial systems might improve soils in ways we don’t typically think of,” says Margenot, a soil scientist in the U of I crop sciences department. “For example, how well do they capture rainfall as a way to mitigate runoff and to bank groundwater?”

The project, which is funded for four years, will start this summer. Lovell thinks their results will provide practical information for farmers, CRP program administrators, and USDA Farm Service Agency representatives, but she’s also hoping the research could inform policy.

“If we can prove there are no downsides to using woody polyculture species in place of the traditional recommended species, maybe this could be a policy change,” she says. “You’re getting the same conservation benefits. Is there any harm in harvesting fruit and nuts during the contract period, as long as the ecological services are there?”

Corn and soybean acreage in 2018

Published March 26, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - Speculation over competition between spring crops for acreage has been a hot topic for discussion over recent weeks. Projections for corn and soybean acreage from many market observers have settled on lower corn and higher soybean acreage in 2018. The March 29 Prospective Plantings report will provide the initial indication of potential acreage allotments for spring crops and will set the tone for corn and soybean production potential moving forward.

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, the anticipating planted acreage of corn and soybeans begins with considering the amount of acreage available for planting this spring. Over the 2015-2017 period, total acreage for principal crops tracked by the USDA came in at 318.9, 319.2, and 319.1 million acres respectively. When one considers Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage and prevent plant acres during the period, acreage totaled 349.8, 346.5, and 345.1 million acres.

Over the same period, corn and soybean acreage combined expanded from 170.7 million acres to 180.3 million acres. “In total, planting intentions for corn and soybean plantings equal to or slightly larger than those of last year would not be a surprise.

“In considering the potential acreage available to spring crops, a reduction in acreage available during 2018 due to increased enrollment in CRP is negligible,” Hubbs says. The current 2018 acreage enrollment is reported at 23.5 million acres, on par with last year’s enrollment.

Winter wheat seedings reported by the USDA in January came in at about the same level as last year, 80,000 acres lower than seedings of a year ago at 32.6 million acres. The acreage of soft red winter wheat is up 4 percent to 5.98 million acres. White winter wheat seeding increased 1 percent to 3.56 million acres. Seedings of other classes of wheat were less than those of a year earlier.

The prospect of double-cropping soft red winter wheat acreage may present additional acreage for soybeans this year. The condition of the hard red winter wheat crop is quite poor in the Southern Plains.

“Despite the development of limited rain in many of the drought-impacted regions, the poor condition suggests acreage may be abandoned,” Hubbs explains. “Depending on weather condition developments, some abandoned acres may get replanted to other crops this spring with corn and soybeans as strong contenders for acreage this year.”

Spring weather conditions influence the acreage of spring-planted crops and the size of prevented plantings. Hubbs adds that the weather forecast for parts of the Midwest indicates very wet conditions this spring which may slow planting and impact acreage allotments. Prevented planted acres totaled only 2.6 million acres in 2017, down from the previous three years. In those three years, prevented plantings were reported at 4.4 million, 6.7 million, and 3.4 million acres, respectively.

Prospects for prevented planting revolve around the potential for spring flooding. The NOAA forecasts the potential for moderate flooding in the lower Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio Valley, the Illinois River Basin, and the Lower Missouri River Basin.

"Flooding in these areas may lead to an increase in prevented plantings and would presumably reduce the total acreage planted this spring,” Hubbs says. “The size of that acreage adjustment will develop over the spring and a return to average prevented plantings would diminish possible acreage availability.”

The competition among individual crops is another driver in determining the total acreage available for corn and soybean planting. Hubbs explains that a consensus has developed around the belief that cotton and rice will compete with corn and soybean acreage in the Mid-South region and parts of the Southeast.

Currently, cotton acreage is projected by the USDA to increase by 5.5 percent to 13.3 million acres in 2018. Similarly, rice acreage is projected to increase 13.7 percent to 2.8 million acres. As a result, corn and soybeans are expected lose a portion of the acreage allotment in those areas.

Spring wheat, corn, soybeans, and other oilseed crops will compete for acreage in the Northern Plains states. At 11 million acres, planted spring wheat in 2017 came in at the lowest level since 1972. According to Hubbs, current difficulties in winter wheat areas provide a rationale for more spring wheat acreage as the weather permits. Continued snow cover in many areas of the region may impact spring wheat acreage as winter continues to stick around longer than desired. 

Total corn and soybean acreage could be at or above the level seen in 2017 with the possibility for an increase in total principal crop acreage. “Current expectations are for a decrease in corn acreage and for soybean acreage to increase,” Hubbs adds.

Early trade surveys placed corn acreage in a range between 87.5 - 90.0 million acres. Soybean acreage expectations indicate the potential for much higher soybean acreage with trade survey projections in a range between 89.9 - 92.6 million acres. The recent soybean rally may have altered those expectations slightly to an even greater expansion of soybean acreage. If soybean acreage does exceed corn acreage, it would be the second time since 1960 and the first time since 1983.   

The USDA reports the results of the spring planting survey in the Prospective Plantings report released on March 29. Hubbs concludes that reported corn or soybean acreage showing substantial deviations from trade estimates may generate a price reaction. Weather, price relationships between crops, and planting progress require scrutiny as the planting season develops to evaluate potential changes in spring acreage allotments for 2018.

Discussion and graphs associated with this article available here:

Prenatal choline intake increases grey and white matter in piglets

Published March 26, 2018
Austin Mudd with MRI images
Austin Mudd with MRI image

URBANA, Ill. – Choline intake during pregnancy can influence infant metabolism and brain development, according to a series of studies from the University of Illinois. Although the role of choline in neurodevelopment has been studied before in rodents, the new research, done with pigs, has more relevance to humans.

“We know the pig is a good model for humans because they have the same nutrient requirements, similar metabolic function, and also have very similar brain development, following the same growth trajectories,” explains Austin Mudd, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Program at U of I. “The pig is bridging the gap between the mechanistic work we see in rodents and that higher-level cognitive function that they’re looking at in humans.”

Choline, found in liver, eggs, wheat germ, and other foods, is an essential nutrient in human and animal diets. It’s required to make cell membranes, neurotransmitters, and myelin, the fatty sheath surrounding nerve cells. But most adults, including pregnant women, don’t consume enough.

“In the U.S., 90 percent of us don’t meet our choline requirement,” Mudd says. “And the most recent data says pregnant women, who should consume 450 milligrams per day, may not even be reaching 300 milligrams.”

To understand how choline deficiency affects the developing brain during and after pregnancy, Mudd and his collaborators gave pregnant sows choline-deficient or choline-sufficient diets through the second half of their pregnancies. After weaning, piglets were fed choline-deficient or choline-sufficient milk replacer for 30 days. Then the month-old piglets were scanned by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Mudd analyzed images of the piglet brains in terms of volume and makeup. The first analysis, reported in a 2016 article in Nutritional Neuroscience, compared the volumes of 19 brain regions in piglets that had received deficient or sufficient choline prenatally and postnatally. The second analysis, published last week in Current Developments in Nutrition, corrected for volume differences to isolate differences in grey and white matter concentration in the piglets’ brains.

“In pigs from choline-deficient moms, their brains were about 10 percent smaller overall,” Mudd says. And 11 of the 19 regions were significantly smaller in choline-deficient brains.

When Mudd corrected for these volume differences to look specifically at grey and white matter concentration, the story was the same. Piglets whose mothers consumed sufficient choline during pregnancy had higher concentrations of grey and white matter in the brain’s cortical regions.

Grey matter is primarily made up of the neurons themselves, while white matter comprises the material that connects neurons and bridges different parts of the brain.

“In our first paper, we saw that the left and right cortex were larger in the choline-sufficient pigs,” he says. “After our second analysis, that makes sense. If you have a greater density of grey matter in the cortex, it is likely that brain region will have a greater volume as well.”

Decades of research has shown particular nutrients play specific roles in the neurodevelopmental process. The use of MRI technology has allowed researchers to identify the global influence of a specific nutrient on particular aspects of brain development. In an earlier study, the researchers found that another nutrient, iron, influenced aspects of both grey and white matter development.

“Our research shows that choline, like iron, does not appear to be specific to one part of brain development, it’s important for all of it,” Mudd says.   

All of these results were for piglets born to choline-deficient mothers. But, as part of the study, some of the pigs from choline-deficient mothers were given adequate amounts of choline after birth. Was it enough to offset the deficiency during pregnancy?

The short answer is no, at least not for the brain. “Postnatal supplementation cannot correct for prenatal deficiency. It has to occur during development. We can’t recover that after the fact,” says Ryan Dilger, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, Division of Nutritional Sciences, and Neuroscience Program at U of I.

However, another graduate researcher who collaborated on these papers led an earlier study on the same piglets in 2015. The study, led by Caitlyn Getty, showed lower brain weights in piglets from choline-deficient mothers, but her study focused more on overall health and metabolism of the piglets. From that perspective, it was postnatal choline intake that was most important, particularly for liver and kidney function.    

The research, taken together, suggests a cellular-level mechanism to back up a 2013 study that concluded children born to mothers whose choline intake was well below the recommendation have lower academic outcomes by age seven.

“We know that the structural alteration is there, but it may not manifest in ways we can see until later in life. That’s why it’s important to think about this during gestation because the changes are occurring then,” Mudd says.

Dilger adds, “We’re not talking about an overt developmental disorder or saying if you don’t eat eggs when you’re pregnant, you cause a disorder. Instead, these are subtle pieces where we see individual variation and it could be related to your mother’s diet during pregnancy.”

The most recent article, “Maternal dietary choline status influences brain grey and white matter development in young pigs,” is published in Current Developments in Nutrition [DOI: 10.1093/cdn/nzy015]. Austin Mudd, Caitlyn Getty, and Ryan Dilger are authors. The work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch Project (1009051).

Ensuring success with dicamba in 2018

Published March 26, 2018
Dicamba-damaged soybean leaves
Dicamba-damaged soybean leaves

URBANA, Ill. – For many soybean producers, the 2017 growing season will be a hard one to forget. Widespread dicamba use in dicamba-resistant soybeans caused equally widespread off-target damage. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued amendments to XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan labels, but Aaron Hager says the amendments won’t be enough to ensure success in the 2018 growing season.

“The intent of these label amendments is to reduce sensitive plant species exposure to dicamba primarily through physical movement (i.e., drift during the application or particle movement during temperature inversions) or via dicamba residues dislodged from application equipment, but because labels don’t include language to prevent volatility, there will still be risk of off-target exposure,” says Hager, weed scientist in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

As with any herbicide, application must follow all label directions and minimize off-target movement of spray particles. It is the responsibility of the applicator, whether private or commercial, to follow all label directions before, during, and after the application of dicamba. Hager notes that strict adherence to label instructions is in the best interest of maintaining the availability of this technology.

Hager shares his thoughts for what success or failure for dicamba might look like in 2018.

“For me, success is the use of dicamba as one component of an integrated weed management program that emphasizes proper selection and application of effective soil-residual herbicides and only EARLY postemergence applications of dicamba (i.e., approximately 14 days after planting), followed by implementation of other herbicide or non-herbicide tactics to ensure zero weed seed production,” he says. “Failure would be the singular use of dicamba as a postemergence herbicide in dicamba-resistant soybean.”

He provides the following steps to achieve success with dicamba in 2018.

  1. Plant dicamba soybean seed into a weed-free seedbed. This can be achieved through the use of preplant tillage, effective burndown herbicide(s), or a combination of tillage and burndown herbicides.
  2. Select and apply within 7 days of planting a soil-residual herbicide that targets your most problematic weed species. If desired (and labeled), add dicamba and an appropriate buffer. Soil-residual herbicides that offer excellent, good, and acceptable control for waterhemp and Palmer amaranth are listed on the Bulletin.
  3. Scout fields 14 days after planting. Apply dicamba at 0.5 lb ae/acre when weeds are less than 3 inches tall and when conditions allow for the application. Consider adding an approved soil-residual herbicide to the tank mix.
  4. Scout treated fields 7 days after the dicamba application. If control is not complete or another flush of weeds has emerged, consider using non-dicamba options for complete control. Examples include alternative herbicides, cultivation, and hand rogueing. The goal should be zero weed seed production.

Additional details can be found in Hager’s original post on the Bulletin, at

News Source:

Aaron Hager, 217-333-4424

The Real Reasons You Shouldn't Clone Your Dog

Published March 23, 2018

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Three years ago, CheMyong Jay Ko received a call from a distraught older man. Ko, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Veterinary Medicine, listened as the caller told him that his dog had just rushed into traffic and been struck by a truck, killing it immediately. He had called Ko with a simple but urgent question: Would it be possible to clone his beloved pet?

For Ko, the call wasn’t as peculiar as you might think. After all, he has studied genetics and cloning for genetics and physiology for more than 20 years. So he had a ready answer: yes, cloning was possible.

Naturally, there was a catch. Cloning requires cells that contain enough intact DNA. But animal tissue begins to degrade soon after death as bacteria start to gnaw away at newly defenseless cells. Ko knew that they had to act quickly if they were going to have a chance to preserve the animal’s genetic material. He and two of his students piled into a van and drove an hour to the man’s home, where they took skin cells from the recently deceased pup.

Back in the lab, he and his team revived and cultured some of the cells from their samples. Theoretically, they now had the material to create a genetic double of the dead dog. In practice, of course, things were about to get a lot more complicated.


Scientists have known that mammal cloning was feasible since 1996, when Dolly the sheep was born. Since then, they quickly moved on to trying to other animals: mice, cattle, pigs, goats, rabbits, cats. But due to differences in the canine reproductive process, dogs proved a trickier challenge.

After several failed attempts, the first successful experiment in dog cloning took place in 2005, when a South Korean team managed to produce a pair of Afghan hound puppies from the ear-skin of a dog named Tai. One of the newborns died soon after, of pneumonia. But the second cloned dog, which the team named Snuppy, lived for an impressive 10 years. Snuppy was deemed a “revolutionary breakthrough in dog cloning” and one of the most amazing “inventions” of the year by Time magazine. Ko was an adviser on the South Korean team.

At the time, researchers were debating whether cloning produces animals that age faster or have higher risks of disease compared to their cell donor. Dolly died at 6, around half the age of the average sheep, from lung disease and arthritis; Snuppy died of the same cancer that had killed Tai at age 12. In 2017, The South Korean team explored this issue in a paper in Nature on their attempt to produce clones from Snuppy’s own stem cells. Their ongoing research hopes to “study the health and longevity of cloned animals compared with their cell donors.”

The science of dog cloning has advanced considerably since the researchers first presented Snuppy to the world. Today, there are a handful of commercial companies and institutions, many of them located in South Korea, committed to bringing cloning to ordinary pet owners—for a price. One of them, the United States-based Viagen, charges $50,000 before taxes, paid in two installments, to clone your dog. (In case you were wondering, they also clone cats, for $25,000).

Ultimately, Ko’s anguished septuagenarian didn’t end up cloning his dog after all. According to Ko, it was the price that turned him off. (For now, his dog’s cells are still sitting in a freezer, unused but theoretically still useable, should he change his mind.)

But many wealthy pet owners are willing to shill out for these rarefied services. No doubt the most famous is Barbara Streisand. Last month, the singer and filmmaker shocked the Internet when she told Variety that two of her three dogs, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet, had been cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her fluffy, white, recently deceased Coton de Tulear, Samantha. Samantha, or Sammie, had passed away the previous May.

As Streisand wrote a few days later, in an op-ed in the New York Times:

I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way. It was easier to let Sammie go if I knew I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA. A friend had cloned his beloved dog, and I was very impressed with that dog.

If you spend enough time reading about pet cloning, you’ll see that adjective come up over and over again: beloved. When people clone their animals, they do so because they love them—and because they can’t stand the prospect of losing them forever. The average American dog lives between 7 and 15 years. With that perspective, the price may seem more reasonable. What is $50,000, if it saves you the immeasurable pain of saying goodbye to a beloved family member?


Talk to experts about what cloning actually entails, however, and you’ll begin to realize that the costs are steeper than most realize—and go far beyond money.

“I understand the impulse behind trying to keep your dog in perpetuity,” says Alexandra Horowitz, head of Columbia University’s Canine Cognition Lab and author of the 2010 book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. “One of the great sadnesses about living with dogs is that the time we live with them is so short. Unfortunately, you have to overlook a huge amount about the process—to say nothing about what cloning actually is—to be satisfied with the results.”

The process of cloning is simple enough. It begins with cultured cells, like those Ko retrieved from his bereaved caller’s former companion. Next, scientists extract unfertilized eggs from another, unrelated dog, removing them from its fallopian tubes. That animal generally isn’t harmed, though the procedure is invasive.

“We take the eggs out and bring them into the laboratory. There we manually remove their nucleus,” Ko says. “We can use a fine pipette needle to remove [them] and suck the nucleus out.” (Think of sucking a boba pearl out of milk tea with a straw.) This process strips the eggs of the genetic material that they contain, making the egg cell essentially a blank slate for scientists to fill with DNA of their choosing. Scientists can also achieve a similar effect with a targeted blast of ultraviolet light, which destroys the genetic material.

Scientists then take one of the cultured somatic cells from the animal that they’re seeking to clone and carefully insert it into the egg with a needle. In a Frankensteinian twist, they hit the composite egg with an electric burst that “fuses” the two together.

“Through that, the nucleus from the donor cell will become part of the egg,” says Ko. “Now the nucleus from the donor cell will behave like the nucleus of the egg.” There’s one critical difference. Unlike an unfertilized egg, which has half of the necessary genetic information to make a new life—the other half is in the sperm cell—you already have a full set of genetic information, just as you would in a viable embryo.

The electrical burst also jumpstarts cell division. After a few days, assuming that the process successfully takes hold, the lab can then surgically implant the cells into yet another animal: a surrogate dog mother. Treated with hormones, and sometimes made to “mate” with vasectomized male dogs, these surrogates can, under ideal circumstances, carry the pregnancies to term. Often, surrogates then go on to carry other cloned pregnancies.


If you were ever considering cloning your dog, this process may already have you hesitating. But things are about to get even more questionable, morally.

Even not counting the original egg donor and surrogate, the cloning process still requires numerous dogs to produce a single clone. Consider: Many cloned pregnancies don’t take hold in the uterus or die shortly after birth, as was the case with Snuppy’s twin. Snuppy and his twin were two of only three pregnancies that resulted from more than 1,000 embryos implanted into 123 surrogates.

“You need a good number of dogs to do this type of cloning,” Ko acknowledges, though he adds that the success rate has gone up in the intervening years. “I would say it’s about 20 percent. Very high.”

As Ko and his co-authors note, there may be legitimate reasons to clone animals. For instance, you might want to make many of the same dogs for research, replicate service dogs with rare and desirable abilities, or clone endangered species for conservation. Yet many animal advocates and ethicists still raise strong objections. “The process of cloning basically creates an industry of what I think of as farmed dogs,” Horowitz tells me.

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce has also argued against the practice, writing in the New York Times that the cloning industry has produced “a whole canine underclass that remains largely invisible to us but whose bodies serve as a biological substrate.”

Even if one is willing to overlook the suffering of animals harvested for their eggs and co-opted into pregnancy, questions still arise. Key among them may be what pet owners think they’re getting when they clone a “beloved” animal.

Centuries of selective breeding have left many with the misconception that a dog’s genetic makeup determines its personality. “In a way, cloning companies are preying on this ignorance, if you will, about what’s actually going on scientifically,” Pierce tells me over the phone. “And that’s unfortunate. Unethical.” Genetic preservation companies feature names like “PerPETuate, Inc.” which would seem to imply the indefinite continuance of the cloned animal.

Horowitz agrees. “There might be some breed tendencies, and there certainly are tendencies that a genome will avail that makes a cloned dog maybe likelier than some other non-genetically similar dog to do a kind of thing,” she says. “But everything that matters to us about the personality of a dog is not in those genes. Everything is in the interaction of that genome with the environment, starting from the time they’re in utero—just as with humans.”

For those who love the dogs they’ve lived with, this should be a critical point. You adore this animal—not because of its genetics, but because it became the creature that it is through time spent with you. While a clone may perfectly replicate its genome, it won’t be the same dog because it won’t have the same life, a life that it lived in your company. In almost every way that matters, then, they’re different dogs.

Even Streisand implicitly admits as much, telling Variety that her two cloned pups “have different personalities” than Samantha—and, presumably, each other. “Each puppy is unique and has her own personality,” she writes in the Times. “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul.” The jury is out on the ethics of what she did with her dogs, but on this point, she’s right.

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News Source:

Jacob Brogan

Export outlook for soybeans

Published March 19, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - Recent adjustments to soybean export projections raise concerns about increased ending stocks this marketing year. Export projections for soybeans put forth by the USDA reflected recent market information associated with export pace and foreign export potential.

Despite drought conditions in Argentina, the prospect for a continued weakening of exports exists. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, soybean export pace needs to pick up to avert a scenario leading to growing ending stocks during the remainder of the marketing year. 

USDA projections for the marketing year decreased soybean exports by 35 million bushels to 2.065 billion bushels in the March WASDE report. “The reduction is the fourth consecutive month of soybean exports decreasing and signals the potential for further weakening in the months ahead,” Hubbs says.

Projected soybean exports began the marketing year at 2.250 billion bushels last September and currently sit 185 million bushels lower, according to Hubbs. Census Bureau export estimates through January place soybean exports at 1.298 billion bushels. Census Bureau export totals came in 30.5 million bushels larger than cumulative marketing year export inspections over the same period.

“As of March 15, cumulative export inspections for the current marketing year totaled 1.478 billion bushels. If the same difference in export pace through the current period is maintained, total soybean exports equal 1.509 billion bushels,” Hubbs adds. “For the rest of the current marketing year, 556 million bushels of soybean exports are required to meet the USDA projection.”

Over the last ten marketing years, soybean export totals from March through August averaged 367 million bushels. The largest total, associated with the short crop in South America, occurred in the 2016-17 marketing year and came in at 519 million bushels. Hubbs explains that exports need to eclipse the level seen in the South American drought year to meet current projections from the USDA. 

Lower soybean exports to China through the first half of the marketing year drive the weaker-than-expected export demand performance. Using Census Bureau export estimates, U.S. soybean exports to China through January totaled 867 million bushels, 209 million bushels behind last year’s pace and 9.7 percent below the three previous marketing year average over the same period.

While China is the dominant market for soybean exports, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Japan constitute 16 percent of this year’s soybean export through January, according to Hubbs. In a similar manner to Chinese export weakness, soybean exports to Japan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia lag last year’s pace by 19, 25, and 7.7 percent respectively through January. Alternatively, Mexico and Thailand exceeded last year’s pace by 7.7 and 3.7 percent.  

Looking forward, total outstanding sales through March 8 for the current marketing year totaled 353 million bushels. Outstanding sales to China, Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand all exceed sales totals from the same time last year.

Currently, total outstanding sales come in 28 million bushels above last year. Mexico leads the way at 19 million bushels above last year’s level. Additionally, outstanding sales to countries outside of the top six markets mentioned above exceed last year’s level by 31 million bushels.

“The positive signs in export sales come with a note of caution due to the potential for trade disruptions and cancellations,” Hubbs says.

Current data suggest soybean exports could reach the recently lowered USDA projection. Soybean exports typically begin a sharp seasonal decline in April. Due to this decline, a comparison of the needed rate to the average rate to date is not useful. Soybean exports for the rest of the marketing must strengthen considerably, Hubbs adds. The ability to attain the current projection hinges on the size of the current crop in South America and U.S. competitiveness in export markets.

The Brazilian soybean production forecast increased for the fourth straight month to 4.15 billion bushels. The expected increase in soybean production levels led to a 55 million bushel increase in the forecast for Brazilian soybean exports, up to 2.59 billion bushels.

Forecasts of Argentine soybean production reflect current dry conditions and currently sit at 1.73 billion bushels for the 2018 crop year, down 257 million bushels. According to Hubbs, the potential for an additional 250 million bushel decline in Argentinian production is a distinct possibility. Soybean export projections for Argentina fell 62 million bushels to 250 million bushels and continued reductions in production would lower this number.

USDA forecasts 2.84 billion bushels of soybeans exports from Brazil and Argentina over the marketing year, up from last year’s 2.59 billion bushels. Stronger South American exports would continue to place downward pressure on U.S. soybean exports in 2018 despite the weather issues in Argentina.

“Recent data on soybean export pace indicate stronger weekly sales that offer hope for meeting the USDA projection,” Hubbs says. “The size of the 2018 crop in South America and the competitiveness of U.S. export prices remain essential to determining U.S. export possibilities for the remainder of the marketing year.”

Additionally, the March 29 Prospective Plantings report holds the potential for an increased acreage allotment in soybeans during 2018. Hubbs concludes that soybean export pace needs to pick up to avert a scenario leading to ending stocks growth in conjunction with increased production prospects in 2018. 

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Homemade herbicide considerations

Published March 19, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Recipes for homemade weed killers abound on the internet. University of Illinois Extension specialist Michelle Wiesbrook explains why homemade is not always better.

“It's important to keep in mind that anyone can post anything and make it look believable,” Wiesbrook says. “All the author needs is a recipe using easy-to-access ingredients, an adjective like ‘amazing’ or ‘best,’ and a pretty picture to draw attention to it. These little DIY gems spread like wildfire on social media.”

Popular mixes tend to include one or more of these main ingredients: vinegar, boiling water, bleach, baking soda, alcohol, salt, dish soap, and borax. We tend to associate a certain comfort level with these products. After all, they can often be found around the home and some of them are even edible!

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of these home remedies often outweigh the advantages. These products don't contain labels with safety or rate information, and yet they can still be hazardous to your health.

Let’s start with vinegar. Vinegar can be effective for weed control, but only if it is a strong enough grade, which the bottle in your kitchen likely isn't. Vinegar contains acetic acid that in concentrations over 11 percent can cause burns if it gets on your skin and permanent corneal injury if it comes in contact with your eyes. This is why reading and following the label is so important. There are now registered herbicidal vinegar products you can buy that have use and safety information on their label.

What about borax? Although borax may sound like a "natural" weed-control method, it is important to remember that it can still be harmful to children and pets and mixtures should be kept out of their reach.

“Registered pesticides that have been studied extensively come with labels that tell you how to protect yourself and others,” Wiesbrook points out. “The borax box only tells you how to wash your clothes.”

A problem with using borax is that the chemical it contains, boron, does not break down or dissipate like conventional weed killers do, so repeated or excessive applications can result in bare areas where no vegetation can grow. Similarly, salt, which is sometimes used for long-term weed control, destroys the soil structure and is mobile, meaning it can migrate to nearby areas in your garden, resulting in unwanted plant damage.

Some homemade weed-killer ingredients can have a lasting effect on the soil making it so that nothing will grow there for a long time. Depending on the area and what you are trying to accomplish, that may not sound so bad. Yet, conventional herbicides are made to break down or dissipate in a timely fashion. While it is frustrating to see new weeds grow back, it’s reassuring to know the soil is still healthy enough to promote growth.

On the other hand, one other important disadvantage of some homemade weed controls is that they often work only temporarily or only partially affect the top growth. Take boiling water, for example. Pouring it on green leaves would mean certain death, but the roots underground are still protected.

“If your weed is a perennial or if it has a deep taproot, you can bet it will grow back,” Weisbrook says. “Plus, how safe is it to carry big pans of boiling water out the door to your garden? Everything has a risk, and furthermore everything can be toxic or dangerous—even water.”

Some claim that their recipes or methods are more effective or longer lasting than registered herbicides. What about their environmental impact? Are these products mobile in the soil? Will they end up in the groundwater? Have they been tested for this use? Would U.S. EPA approve these weed control methods? If not, would they insist the contaminated soil be removed?

Finally, money savings is often what drives the use of these mixtures. But how much are you really saving? When calculating this, be sure to factor in your personal safety, any potential environmental damage, and the expected length of control. Don’t cut corners when it comes to these important factors—even if the recipe does sound “amazing.”

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Elusive venomous mammal joins the genome club

Published March 16, 2018
Solenodon. Credit: Eladio Fernandez, Caribbean Nature Photography

URBANA, Ill. – Published today, in the journal GigaScience, is an article that presents a draft genome of a small shrew-like animal, the venomous Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus). The endangered species is unusual not only because it is one of the very few venomous mammals, it is also one of only two species remaining from a branch of mammals that split from other insectivores during the “Age of Dinosaurs.”

The genome sequencing and analysis of this endangered animal was carried out by an international team lead by Taras K. Oleksyk from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and including Alfred Roca from the University of Illinois. While the mammalian tree of life has been heavily researched, the genome of the solenodon adds a distantly related branch to the “genome club,” allowing researchers to answer several evolutionary questions.

Solenodons’ venomous saliva flows from modified salivary glands through grooves on their sharp incisors (“solenodon” derives from the Greek for “grooved tooth”). They also have several other primitive and very unusual characteristics for a mammal: very large claws, a flexible snout with a ball-and-socket joint, and oddly positioned mammary glands.

Solenodons are not just genetically but also geographically isolated. At risk of extinction, they survive only in a few remote corners of the Caribbean islands, with one species in Cuba and the other in Hispaniola. Its nocturnal lifestyle makes it even more elusive and therefore less studied. Thus, it was crucial for the researchers to work with local experts at the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo and Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and with local guides who helped them track and temporarily capture passing solenodons at night.

“Local resources are absolutely necessary for this kind of work since only they truly know their animals’ behavior,” said Juan Carlos Martinez-Cruzado, one of the lead authors from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He added, “This project may open doors to many others to come, and we always assumed this to be one of many projects that will help research, education and conservation efforts in the Dominican Republic.”

For this project, there was more than just the challenge of obtaining the organisms for blood samples; the solenodon genome proved particularly difficult to sequence. Carrying out genomics research in remote parts of the Caribbean was not easy, particularly in terms of transporting high-quality DNA to the lab. This poor-quality DNA and a limited research budget led to spotty genetic information for each individual.

Having already ventured into the wilderness, the researchers embraced this new challenge by coming up with novel approaches to assemble the genome. First, the researchers reasoned that because the species has lived for millions of years in isolation it was somewhat inbred and would have low genetic diversity. This led to a potential work-around, because genomic datasets from each of five solenodons could be pooled to increase the coverage.

 Despite initial doubts, this worked better than expected, especially when the researchers combined this with a new approach that provided a low-budget alternative for genome assembly for endangered species with low diversity.  

The first author of the paper, Kirill Grigorev elaborated that, for him, the most interesting part of the research was the challenge of putting together the genome sequences in a manner “that was suitable for comparative genomics, using an amount of sequencing data much smaller than in other similar projects.”

After carrying out their assembly, the researchers had data of sufficient quality for answering many scientific questions on solenodon evolution. With regard to conservation plans, the data supports that there was a subspecies split within the Hispaniolan solenodon at least 300,000 years ago, meaning the northern and southern subspecies should be treated as two separate conservation units and may therefore require independent conservation strategies.

These data also shed light on the initial speciation event for this branch, and showed that solenodons likely diverged from other living mammals 73.6 million years ago, a remarkably ancient split that occurred while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Oleksyk indicated that these results are relevant to “the ongoing debate on whether the solenodons have indeed survived the demise of dinosaurs after the asteroid impact in the Caribbean.

“It is difficult to determine whether the ancestors of solenodons were already in the proto-Antilles when the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs impacted nearby, or whether their ancestors survived on the North American mainland and later dispersed onto the island,” said Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois, a co-author on the study. “Perhaps their Freddy Krueger-like claws allowed them to burrow their way to safety.”

The article, "Innovative assembly strategy contributes to understanding the evolution and conservation genetics of the endangered Solenodon paradoxus from the island of Hispaniola," is published in GigaScience. The research was supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation (award #1432092).

News Writer:

ACES Research