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Choline deficiency during pregnancy influences milk composition in sows

Published October 20, 2016
Ryan Dilger and Austin Mudd
  • Choline, an essential nutrient, is used by the body in many ways, including in the makeup of cellular membranes and neurodevelopment.
  • Choline deficiency during pregnancy has been shown to delay brain development in pig studies.
  • A new study shows choline deficiency during pregnancy also affects the nutrient composition of sow milk up to 19 days after birth.
  • The study also shows similarities in choline metabolites in sow and human milk composition.

URBANA, Ill. – Choline is an essential nutrient that is used by the body in a number of ways. However, nearly 90 percent of adults do not get the recommended amount in their diets. For pregnant or lactating women, this is especially significant, as choline, much like folate or folic acid, has been shown to play a role in early brain development.

Researchers at the University of Illinois who study the impacts of nutrition on brain development using the piglet as a model have conducted a series of studies related to choline deficiency in sows during pregnancy. One such study reports that choline deficiency during pregnancy delays brain development in pigs.

In a more recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition, the researchers look at the impact choline deficiency during pregnancy has on the nutrient composition of sow milk up to 19 days after birth. Surprisingly, they found that when mothers did not have enough dietary choline during pregnancy, alterations in choline metabolites, fatty acids, and amino acids, for example, were occurring by the end of lactation.

If milk composition is altered, due to choline deficiency during pregnancy, this could have implications on the quality of nutrition the mother’s offspring receives.

Ryan Dilger, a U of I animal nutritionist and a co-author on the paper, says the study provides new information about milk composition. “We did a lot of analyses not typically done on sow milk. The findings are pertinent to both human clinicians and animal scientists,” Dilger explains.

“In humans, many women of child-bearing age are not getting sufficient choline in their diets. While many countries have mandatory fortification programs to get the nutrient folate into the diets of women, those programs don’t exist for choline. Choline is another nutrient we should definitely be looking at and it has been gaining emphasis since the Institute of Medicine officially recognized this nutrient as being essential in 1998,” he adds.

Austin Mudd, a doctoral student and lead author of the study said another surprise in the study was seeing striking similarities in the overall choline metabolite composition in sow milk compared to human milk. Metabolites are molecules that play a critical role in metabolism in the body.

“When we look at the nutrient profiles, those compositions are very close to what we would see in humans, which is different than what we would see in rodent and bovine milk. This helps in establishing the pig as an excellent model for studying choline deficiency, especially in terms of lactation, because there are similar proportions of choline metabolites that likely have similar physiological importance,” Mudd says.

During the study, pregnant sows were provided a choline sufficient or choline deficient diet. Milk was then collected after sows gave birth at days 0 (colostrum), 7-9 (mature milk), and 17-19 (pre-weaning).  The milk was analyzed for concentrations of choline metabolites, fatty acids, and amino acids.

The researchers analyzed seven choline metabolites, and observed that free choline and betaine—from the oxidized product of choline—was lowered by the end of lactation (18 days).

Choline and its derivative metabolites are considered “methyl donors.” Methyl groups aid in many functions in the body, in both animals and humans, and are important in gene expression. Choline can be obtained in the diet—through foods like milk, eggs, poultry, fish, and grains—and is supplied in human and animal milk. It is typically included in infant formula.

In addition to changes in the choline metabolite profiles, the researchers also saw changes in milk fatty acids and milk amino acids by the end of lactation. Both showed a pattern of increasing by day 19.

“Fatty acids showed the same pattern, that if the sow was provided adequate choline throughout gestation and lactation, between days 0 and 7, fatty acids increased and then plateaued by day 19, versus in those that were deficient, we observed a linear increase,” Dilger explains.

“If we had followed these sows beyond 19 days of lactation, we could learn just how long perinatal choline deficiency may influence fatty acid composition of the milk.”

Although the study did not explore what more long-term effects of alterations in the milk compositions would mean for piglet, or human development, Mudd did stress that the takeaway is that choline deficiency affected more than just choline in milk composition.

“This shows doctors and breast-feeding mothers why choline is so important,” Mudd says. “If you’re deficient in choline, you’re not only altering choline or its metabolites in the milk, but also the fatty acids and the amino acids. It’s not just one thing that’s being impacted. That’s really where our work differs from what’s been done in rodents and, to some extent, in pigs. Most other studies just look at choline metabolites. But we understand that babies drink milk not just for choline, but for everything. So if a mother is deficient in choline, what else is being impacted and how will that affect later development?  This could be used a stepping stone for future studies, especially those where we look at the epigenetic implications of the altered diet.”

Dilger adds that the changes they saw in milk composition is only piece in understanding how what affects an infant’s development.

“We are altering a single nutrient in choline, and understanding how that affects the production and composition of that milk. There are slight changes we can show. But in the end, the composition of that milk is only one factor,” Dilger explains. “Other factors, such as the genetics and physiology of the infant, in addition to the microbiota, which includes all microbes in and on the body, comes into play. This is just one of a number of complex components influencing the baby.”

In a previous study, Mudd and Dilger look at brain development in piglets when the mother has had a sufficient or deficient choline supply. After being born, piglets were either put on choline-sufficient or choline-deficient milk replacers. They found that whether the mother had adequate choline during pregnancy mattered more for piglet brain development than what diet the piglet was put on after being born, when the only dietary factor being altered was choline. Also, they found that a limited supply of choline during pregnancy profoundly affects brain maturation.

“That paper speaks to the developmental role of choline in brain growth and overall function. In that study, we learned that differences in perinatal choline intake influence structural development of the brain, including maturation of white matter in brain regions that develop relatively late in the postnatal period. Studying the effects of diet on neurodevelopment by focusing on brain regions experiencing significant growth and development postnatally is a major reason we use the pig in our laboratory,” Dilger says.

In two other recent studies related to nutrition and brain development, the researchers explore brain development between piglets that have been artificially reared versus sow-reared, as well as examine concentrations of oligosaccharides, a bioactive compound known to influence neonatal development, present in sow milk during lactation.

But the current paper, Dilger describes as having a more utilitarian piece. “If we want to understand how to use the pig as a model for studying human infants, we need to learn how to optimize the diet. This current study gives us a baseline of what is in sow milk and how we can alter the composition of infant formula designed for piglets to test brain development.  We are asking, ‘What are the norms?  What are the differences?’ 

“These two pieces of work on choline deficiency provide pivotal evidence to justify the inclusion of more choline in prenatal supplements and diets of lactating mothers,” he says.  

“Perinatal dietary choline deficiency in sows influences concentrations of choline metabolites, fatty acids, and amino acids in milk throughout lactation,” is published in The Journal of Nutrition. Co-authors include Austin T. Mudd, Lindsey S. Alexander, Stacey K. Johnson, Caitlyn M. Getty, Olga V. Malysheva, Marie A. Caudill, and Ryan N. Dilger. The study is available online at

The research is funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Other referenced articles:

“Perinatal choline deficiency delays brain development and alters metabolite concentrations in the young pig”

“Comparison of brain development in sow-reared and artificially reared piglets”

“Porcine milk oligosaccharides and sialic acid concentrations vary throughout lactation”


Study Confirms Long-Term Effects of 'Chemobrain' in Mice

Published October 19, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer have long complained of lingering cognitive impairments after treatment. These effects are referred to as "chemobrain," a feeling of mental fogginess. A new study from the University of Illinois reports long-lasting cognitive impairments in mice when they are administered a chemotherapy regimen used to treat breast cancer in humans.

The results are published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

“Cancer survival rates have increased substantially and continue to improve due to both earlier detection and better medical treatments,” said Catarina Rendeiro, a postdoctoral scholar at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The study’s lead author, Rendeiro collaborated with an interdisciplinary group at Illinois, including Justin Rhodes, a professor of psychology and a Beckman Institute affiliate; and William Helferich, a professor of nutrition in the department of food science and human nutrition.

"Quality of life after chemotherapy is critically important, and chemobrain is significant in these survivors," Helferich said.

Patient complaints and clinical observations after chemotherapy spurred an interest in chemobrain. While many researchers have examined these effects in humans as well as animals, most such studies do not assess long-term effects. The physical toll of chemotherapy is great and accounts for the short-term cognitive impairments, Rhodes said.

“The question is, after they completely recover from the acute assault of chemotherapy, many months or years later, do they still have cognitive impairments?” he said.

Drugs can be developed to address these cognitive impairments, but side effects and negative interactions of these drugs with the chemotherapy medications could cause patients to suffer even more, Rhodes said. The researchers hope to find nonpharmaceutical interventions that are widely available and have fewer complications.

"A dietary intervention that could improve cognitive function after chemotherapy could benefit a lot of cancer patients," Rendeiro said.

The researchers used female mice bred to mimic post-menopausal women, the group most affected by breast cancer.

“We wanted a model that represents the human population so we have the best chance of having results that translate to humans,” Rhodes said.

The team’s first goal was to confirm that chemobrain was a long-lasting phenomenon. They assessed the long-term effects of chemotherapy on learning and memory, as well as the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region known to contribute to those abilities.

"We need to have good animal models of these long-term cognitive problems following chemotherapy to understand what is going on and how to treat it," Rendeiro said.

The researchers tested learning and memory using the Morris Water Maze, which trains mice to find a hidden platform in a maze. The mice that had received the chemotherapy regimen took longer to find the platform and were slower to learn the task compared with the control group. The chemotherapy group also had 26 percent fewer surviving hippocampal neurons born during the chemotherapy treatment and generated 14 percent fewer hippocampal neurons in the three months following chemotherapy. Three months for a mouse corresponds to about ten human years, Rhodes said. Together, these results show long-term detriments to both the brain and behavior of the chemotherapy-treated mice.

The researchers also were interested in the efficacy of a diet enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids in reversing these cognitive impairments. However, they found no beneficial effect of the supplemented diet on mitigating chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairments.

This study provides one of the first animal models to demonstrate the long-term cognitive deficits resulting from a chemotherapeutic treatment used in treating humans for breast cancer.  Although the omega-3 diet did not improve cognitive outcomes in the mice, the researchers expect their model will be useful for studying alternative lifestyle interventions to ameliorate the chemobrain phenomenon.

This research was funded by private grants from the U. of I. Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory.

Editor’s notes:

To reach Catarina Rendeiro, email

To reach Justin Rhodes, call 217-265-0021; email

To reach William Helferich, call 217-244-5414; email

The paper “Long-lasting impairments in adult neurogenesis, spatial learning and memory from a standard chemotherapy regimen used to treat breast cancer” is available online and from the News Bureau.

DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2016.07.043

Large U.S. corn and soybean crops place emphasis on foreign markets

Published October 17, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Corn and soybean harvest future prices moved higher after the release of the USDA October World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report on Oct. 12. December corn futures closed the week ending Oct. 14 at a 3-month high of $3.54 per bushel, while November soybean futures moved up to close at $9.62 per bushel. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, price movements through harvest in the United States can still be impacted by the domestic crop prospects for both corn and soybeans. In particular, yield forecasts for soybeans may be poised for an increase in November.

“Increasingly, the prospects for major price changes in both markets are linked to South American production outcomes and the ability to export corn and soybeans into foreign markets,” Hubbs says. “Pricing opportunities can occur as South American crop conditions change and export markets respond to importer demand and prices.”   

Corn production in the United States is forecast to be 15.06 billion bushels in marketing year 2016/17 and is down 36 million bushels from the September World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates forecast. Although acres harvested forecast has increased by 200,000 acres, the one bushel per acre yield reduction to 173.4 lowered the production forecast number. Domestic use numbers remained stable from the Sept. 12 forecast.  As a previous report indicated, there is strong domestic demand currently for corn use in ethanol production. United States exports for corn are forecast to increase by 50 million bushels over the September forecast.

“Although strong export shipments through the first few weeks of the marketing year look promising, weekly export sales numbers through Oct. 6 indicate a need to sell 29.26 million bushels per week for the rest of the marketing year in order to reach the USDA projection of 2.225 billion bushels,” Hubbs says.

World supply and demand projections for corn in the 2016/17 marketing year moved lower due to U.S. production numbers. Brazil’s forecast production increased by 39 million bushels. For the marketing year, South American production is set at 5.16 billion bushels, which is a 962 million bushel increase over 2015/16 production estimates and signifies recovery from the poor crop last year. Argentina and Brazil are forecast to export an additional 39.37 million bushels each above the September WASDE forecast. South American corn exports for the marketing year are forecast to be 2.08 billion bushels.

“Given the increase in South American production and exports, the evolution of crop conditions in the region may provide pricing opportunities for corn producers under the current strong export demand for U.S. corn,” Hubbs adds.

Prior to the release of the October WASDE report, an increase in the U.S. soybean yield forecast was expected. The report forecast 2016/17 marketing-year yield at 51.4 bushels per acre with only a minor change in harvested acres.

“The yield increase of 0.8 bushels per acre leaves some room for growth in the yield forecast in November based on many yield reports around the country,” Hubbs says.

U.S. soybean production is forecast to increase by 68 million bushels to 4.3 billion bushels. Forecasts of soybean exports by the United States increased by 40 million bushels to 2.025 billion bushels for the marketing year. Current weekly export inspections for soybeans are strong. To meet the marketing-year forecast, 19.8 million bushels a week need to be sold. Ending stocks in the United States were forecast to be 395 million bushels, up 30 million from the Sept.12 forecast.  

World production forecasts for the marketing year increased 102 million bushels on the larger U.S. crop and a Brazilian production forecast to increase by 36.74 million bushels over the September forecast. South American soybean exports are forecast to be 2.64 billion bushels over the marketing year. China is forecast to import 3.16 billion bushels of soybeans over the marketing year. On Oct. 13, the Foreign Agricultural Service released a Global Agricultural Information Network on China Oilseed Products report indicating Chinese domestic expectations for domestic production vary but are estimated at 478 million bushels. 

“Additionally, soybean imports could be helped by solid, but weakening, profit margins for Chinese hog producers and a reduction in DDGS imports due to the recently imposed tariff,” Hubbs says. “At a national level, recent Chinese economic data provided no clarity on economic growth in the country as one report showed growth in factory output while another indicated weak exports despite recent depreciation of the yuan.

“In assessing the prospects for corn and soybean prices in the current marketing year, South American production and the ability for the U.S. market to meet export forecasts provide key supply and demand indicators,” Hubbs concludes. “Because the South American planting season is off to a good start and current U.S. export levels are significantly higher than in the 2015/16 marketing year, poor weather in South America or strong economic growth indications in major importer markets should provide pricing opportunities for this record crop in the next few months.”


Pumpkin crop looking good in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving

Published October 13, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – This time last year, the threat of a major pumpkin shortfall was in the news. Sources were predicting that the 50 percent yield losses—due to early rains, cooler-than-normal weather, and fast-spreading disease—would mean fewer pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving. But thanks to manufacturer decisions not to reserve stock for after the holiday, the doom and gloom scenario was largely not borne out. Still, the lead-up to Thanksgiving was a tense time for the pumpkin industry.

This year, according to University of Illinois plant pathologist Mohammad Babadoost, the pumpkin outlook is much improved.

“The season started out very well,” Babadoost says. “There was enough rain to germinate seeds, but not too much. Then there was a period of relatively warm and dry conditions, which pumpkins love. Germination and plant establishment were good and fruit set was very good. Harvesting was timely. The product, I’ve been told, is very good.”

A scare came in mid-August, when downy mildew reared its head in some fields. This fast-spreading fungus was one of the pathogens that wreaked havoc on the pumpkin crop in 2015. Fortunately, its occurrence has been confined to a small area in Tazewell County, Illinois, and it has not been a significant problem elsewhere.

Other isolated diseases have been detected. For example, a bacterial disease has been on the rise in jack-o’-lantern pumpkins across the Midwest and worldwide for the past seven to eight years.

“This bacterial disease affects leaves and fruit. When the disease gets onto pumpkins, it produces tiny spots, or lesions. Growers can’t see them unless they are very carefully examining the fruit. Those tiny lesions are then colonized by opportunistic bacteria and fungi, and then the fruit just collapses. We are working very hard to find good management, but it takes time,” Babadoost explains.

A few farms in Illinois and Indiana have observed fruit rot after seemingly healthy pumpkins were placed into bins for sale. Babadoost investigated and discovered that the problem was worker sanitation.

“The workers cut and collect the fruit and put it in the bin, which goes to the warehouse and finally to the stores,” Babadoost says. “A few pumpkins in the field are affected by phytophthora—a fungal pathogen—and are rotting on the soil side. Workers pick them up and realize the pumpkins are decaying. They put the infected pumpkins down, but their hands are now contaminated. When they pick up healthy pumpkins and put them in the bin, their contaminated hands transfer the pathogens to the uninfected pumpkins. After a few days, the pumpkins start rotting from the top or sides, wherever the worker touched them.

“Growers should be very careful. If workers touch infected pumpkins, they have to decontaminate their hands. Use alcohol or wash before touching uninfected pumpkins. That was a new observation this year. I saw spectacular rotting in the bin,” Babadoost notes.

Some farmers have complained of rodent damage in the field this year. Jack-o’-lantern carvers can relate, recognizing those unwelcome chew marks on Halloween pumpkins. Babadoost says the squirrels and mice are after the seeds inside, even though most are scooped out before carving. If pumpkins are displayed on porches, it is not uncommon for them to rot after only a few weeks. But if they are kept dry, Babadoost says, most pumpkins can last a very long time. A large uncarved white pumpkin has decorated his lab space for over 14 months, with no sign of fruit rot.

Babadoost is an enthusiastic champion for the pumpkin industry, and hopes the public will take advantage of everything the season offers. “Pumpkins bring people together, through baking, family visits to pumpkin patches, and other autumn traditions. And this year, there will be no shortage of pumpkin pie at the Thanksgiving table.”


Delegation from Indonesian Embassy

All Day Event
College of ACES

The Office of International Programs will host an agricultural-focused delegation from the Indonesian Embassy.

Knowledge increases awareness of biodiversity despite firsthand experiences

Published October 13, 2016
Island foxes
Foxes on Santa Cruz island. Photo courtesy Mario Nonaka.
  • Understanding what people value can guide management decisions for parks and protected areas.
  • Identifying discrepancies between management priorities and social values for ecosystem services can help balance public interests with the protection of biodiversity.

URBANA, Ill. – Protecting an ecological paradise like the island of Santa Cruz can be challenging for its resource managers who want to maximize visitor experiences while minimizing negative impacts on the park. As the largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, Santa Cruz boasts over 2,000 species of plants and animals, some of which are not found anywhere else on earth. But a recent University of Illinois study says the island’s rich biodiversity may not be what’s valued most by its stakeholders.

Two-thirds of the island is managed by The Nature Conservancy. It is reserved for scientific research and environmental preservation and is off limits to the public. The eastern third of the island is managed by the National Park Service and is a popular place to spend a day hiking or camping overnight.

For the U of I study, 323 randomly selected visitors to the island were surveyed before boarding a boat to return to the mainland. Using a map of the island, they allocated “preference points” which were used to weigh the importance of 12 social values such as aesthetics, recreation, and perceived biodiversity.

“We found that people were more likely to place biodiversity values on areas of the island that weren’t actually biologically diverse,” says U of I social scientist Carena van Riper. “There was a clear negative relationship between the likelihood of a point assignment and biodiversity.”

“They may have seen an island fox, for example. It’s a charismatic creature that’s everywhere in the park. They garner a lot of attention. People likely assigned biodiversity values to places where they had these unusual wildlife encounters, whereas a lot of other species wouldn’t be seen where people are on trails,” van Riper says. “They also placed value on rocky cliffs, mountain summits that don’t have a lot of vegetation. They’re aesthetically beautiful, but they aren’t biologically diverse.”

Van Riper says the top ranking qualities that people are looking for in these types of landscapes are aesthetics, recreation, learning, therapeutic benefits, and perceived biodiversity—although as she learned, their perception of what areas are actually biodiverse may not be accurate.

The study also finds that people with more knowledge of the park recognized the biodiversity values of places in the protected two-thirds of the island that they hadn’t experienced firsthand. Those with knowledge didn’t have to experience those areas to detect their intrinsic qualities and benefit from their “ecosystem services.”

“Knowledge shapes people’s perceptions of biodiversity. Those with less knowledge were more inclined to ascribe biodiversity values to the places they had visited within the protected area. That face-to-face interaction with the resource was important for people who didn’t have an understanding of why the protected area was important,” van Riper says.

Although most visitors to the islands were environmentally friendly, van Riper says that surprisingly there weren’t that many rugged, outdoorsy people. “I saw a fair number of people come off the boat with suitcases on wheels on the dirt roads. There isn’t much infrastructure on the island so a lot of folks were surprised to learn that they couldn’t purchase a coffee like they could have just across the harbor in Ventura.”

The desire for comforts or amenities is in conflict with what natural resource managers are trying to accomplish. “For some visitors, environmental degradation is often preferred.  Not necessarily major infrastructure, but a trail system, a campsite where vegetation has been cleared, places where you can easily hang a lantern on a tree, or tie up a pack animal. All of these are different forms of impact and they’re desired.  That was confirmed through our results. And people didn’t recognize these as having potential environmental impacts,” van Riper says.

Mapping the island for its social values can allow managers of protected areas like Santa Cruz to make decisions that are in line with what people see, what they experience, and what they believe, van Riper says. Having this tool to represent people’s perspectives in relation to the environment can help managers understand what attracts people, why they care about protected landscapes, and may lead to engagement in stewardship activities.

Something as simple as providing access is an important consideration. “If you’re making decisions about development, such as where to put a trail system and what areas to feature or showcase, knowing what people believe is valuable can help and may even generate support for the park among stakeholders,” van Riper says.

The study looked at management priorities, what features visitors value, and where they overlap. “By mapping values we can identify areas that people recognize as valuable and other places the managers find valuable but go unrecognized by visitors. We can determine the economic importance of an area because people are willing to pay to come to an area, but this tool also allows us to identify intangible social values such as the spirituality of a place and the aesthetics. These are social values that aren’t easily captured with traditional methods,” van Riper says.

“Toward an integrated understanding of perceived biodiversity values and environmental conditions in a national park” is authored by Carena J. van Riper, Gerard T. Kyle, Benson C. Sherrouse, Kenneth J. Bagstad, and Stephen G. Sutton. It is published in Ecological Indicators. The research is based on van Riper’s previous work in the Applied Biodiversity Sciences NSF-IGERT Program at Texas A&M University.



ACES Town Hall with Dean Kidwell

2:00 PM - 5:00 PM
ACES Library, Monsanto Room

Join newly appointed ACES Dean Kim Kidwell for an open discussion

The College of ACES is a place for thoughtful dialogue on complex issues. Our college is community oriented and has a unique ability to solve problems through interdisciplinary collaboration. We can also examine the aspects of our college community and culture we care about most to make ACES an even better place to learn, work, and live. Join ACES Dean Kim Kidwell for an open discussion on:

  • Transition in the Dean's Office
  • Discovery plan
  • Research collaboration
  • Communication strategy
  • Budget concerns

Find out updates on these topics and more. Please bring your questions and concerns. Your input is welcome and needed! For the most thorough responses and answers, please submit your questions in advance.

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