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Crop Sciences - Summer 2021 Issue


CPSC in the News

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Sweet corn growers and processors could be bringing in more profits by exploiting natural density tolerance traits in certain hybrids. That’s according to 2019 research from USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and University of Illinois scientists.

But since root systems get smaller as plant density goes up, some in the industry are concerned about the risk of root lodging with greater sweet corn density. New research says those concerns are unjustified.

“Root lodging can certainly be a problem for sweet corn, but not because of plant density. What really matters is the specific hybrid and the environment, those major rainfall and wind events that set up conditions for root structural failure,” says Marty Williams, affiliate professor in CPSC and author of a new study in Crop Science.

Williams and his co-authors used multiple approaches to understand the effects of planting density on root lodging in sweet corn. First, they planted sweet corn hybrid DMC 21-84 – a density-tolerant type that happens to be one of the most widely grown commercial hybrids – at five densities in experimental plots on U of I farms. When plants were at the tasseling stage, the researchers simulated a natural lodging event by flooding the field and knocking the corn over with a two-by-four. Read more here.


Ask a farmer, a scientist, and a conservation professional to define soil health, and you might come up with three rather different answers. That mismatch may be at the root of lower-than-ideal adoption of soil conservation practices, according to a new study from the University of Illinois and The Ohio State University.

“We all use the term ‘soil health,’ but upon further discussion, it’s often clear different groups don’t really have the same working definition or interpretation of the term. When we keep talking past one another, assuming we know what the other person means, that’s a potential barrier to greater adoption of good soil management practices,” says Jordon Wade, postdoctoral researcher and lead author on the study. Wade conducted the research as a doctoral student at OSU.

Importantly, the study also finds farmers care far more about soil health than scientists and conservation professionals think.

Andrew Margenot, study co-author and Wade’s current faculty advisor, works closely with Illinois farmers on soil health and fertility issues. He says, “Many farmers in Illinois with whom we worked have noted potential links between soil health and water quality for a given practice, and also, importantly, how some practices may yield benefits on soil health but not necessarily water quality. Given the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals of decreased nutrient export to surface waters, this study reinforces that we researchers should be more explicit in articulating – and working with farmers to quantify –how practices that improve water quality may also bolster soil health.”  Read more here.


Corn growers can choose from a wide array of products to make the most of their crop, but the latest could bring seaweed extract to a field near you. The marine product is just one class in a growing market of crop biostimulants marketed for corn.

Biostimulants benefit crops and soil, but the dizzying array of products has farmers confused, according to Fred Below, CPSC corn and soybean researcher.

“Farmers hear the term ‘plant biostimulant’ and think they all do the same thing, and can be used in the same way at the same time. But that’s not the case. There's huge confusion over what these products do, and when and how they should be used,” says Below.

To quell the confusion, Below, along with doctoral student Connor Sible and research specialist Juliann Seebauer, categorized available biostimulant products into eight classes based on their modes of action. Their review, which includes summaries of product composition, mechanisms, efficacy, and application considerations, is published in the journal Agronomy. Read more here.


With a growing number of states legalizing the sale and personal cultivation of cannabis, including medical and recreational marijuana and hemp, farmers and home growers need to know the ins and outs of the crop. Now, enthusiasts and full-scale producers alike can learn to classify and manage cannabis production in an online course through the University of Illinois.

“We cover classification and taxonomy, which is critical for proper production of any given cannabis product. How you grow and manage diverse varieties depends on whether you’re targeting THC for medical or recreational marijuana, for non-psychoactive compounds like CBD, or for hemp fiber, protein, and oils,” says Dr. DK Lee, instructor for the course and director of online programs.

Anyone can take the cannabis course, including members of the public with a basic understanding of plant biology. The course is also open to current students enrolled in the department’s undergraduate, graduate, and online master’s degree programs. Read more here.

Register here to enroll for the fall semester.


For the first time, the University of Illinois’ annual Agronomy Day will take place in-person in multiple locations around the state throughout summer 2021. And, like last year’s virtual event, presentations will be made available online to those unable to travel or safely attend in-person events. The adjustments extend the event’s practical, science-based content to more participants than ever.

“Our 2020 virtual Agronomy Day drew about five times the number of people who physically attend in a typical year. So we know the online format is a great option for folks and reaches a wider audience,” says Allen Parrish, director of Crop Sciences Research and Education Centers and chairperson for Agronomy Day. “Now with COVID-19 Phase 5 restrictions in place, we are excited to offer our research-backed findings to folks in multiple formats and locations.” Read more.


Despite soybean’s high protein and oil content and its potential to boost food security on the continent, Africa produces less than 1% of the world’s soybean crop. Production lags, in part, because most soybean cultivars are bred for North and South American conditions that don’t match African environments.

Researchers from the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project led by the University of Illinois, are working to change that. In a new study, published in Agronomy, they have developed methods to help breeders improve soybean cultivars specifically for African environments, with the intention of creating fast-maturing lines that will bolster harvests and profits for smallholder farmers. 

“It is important for producers and breeders to know when a cultivar is going to mature: that moment when a plant is at full capacity and performing its best. We were motivated to fill in gaps of knowledge around maturity timing in Africa,” says Guillermo Marcillo, CPSC postdoctoral researcher and first author on the new study.

“The methodology we implemented is quite innovative, introducing data-driven algorithms and conventional breeding statistics to capture interactions between cultivars and environment in different areas,” Marcillo says.

It was important to use a new statistical method to analyze the multi-environment dataset, according to Nicolas Martin, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences and co-author on the study.

Read more here.


Proteins have been quietly taking over our lives since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We’ve been living at the whim of the virus’s so-called “spike” protein, which has mutated dozens of times to create increasingly deadly variants. But the truth is, we have always been ruled by proteins. At the cellular level, they’re responsible for pretty much everything.

Proteins are so fundamental that DNA – the genetic material that makes each of us unique – is essentially just a long sequence of protein blueprints. That’s true for animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea, and even viruses. And just as those groups of organisms evolve and change over time, so too do proteins and their component parts.

A new study from University of Illinois researchers, published in Scientific Reports, maps the evolutionary history and interrelationships of protein domains, the subunits of protein molecules, over 3.8 billion years.

“Knowing how and why domains combine in proteins during evolution could help scientists understand and engineer the activity of proteins for medicine and bioengineering applications. For example, these insights could guide disease management, such as making better vaccines from the spike protein of COVID-19 viruses,” says Gustavo Caetano-Anollés, CPSC professor, affiliate of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, and senior author on the paper.

Caetano-Anollés has studied the evolution of COVID mutations since the early stages of the pandemic, but that timeline represents a vanishingly tiny fraction of what he and doctoral student Fayez Aziz took on in their current study. Read more here.


Goss’s bacterial wilt and leaf blight is one of the most damaging diseases affecting corn. The most effective way to control this disease is to plant corn varieties that are resistant to the disease. In other words, growers avoid the disease by growing certain varieties of corn. In part, this is the easiest method because scientists don’t yet know much about Goss’s wilt.

Alexander Mullens and Tiffany Jamann, CPSC plant pathologists, set out to better understand the mechanics of this disease by following the causal pathogen. They genetically modified the pathogen so it would display green fluorescence, which made it easier to track the bacteria inside the plant. They were able to see how the bacteria entered the plant and where the bacteria congregated inside the leaf.

“While the bacteria had previously been known to enter the plants through wounds caused by wind or hail damage, we discovered that in the absence of damage it enters the leaf through natural openings at the edge of the leaf,” said Mullens. “Once in the plant, the bacteria are able to grow through the veins and exit the plant through natural pores in the leaf’s surface.” They also show that high concentrations of bacteria cause the freckles associated with Goss’s wilt.

Read more here.


CPSC has offered master’s degrees since the university’s earliest days. But, recognizing the unique needs of professionals wishing to advance their careers, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the department started offering its first distance-learning option. Back then, the program primarily targeted professionals in traditional agricultural careers: seed salespeople, crop advisors, and the like. But agriculture has made some seismic shifts in the past 40 years. Today’s program reflects those changes while staying relevant to those in traditional ag roles.

Busy professionals can apply to begin when the program best fits their schedules, with start dates in summer, fall, or spring.

D.K. Lee, an instructor in the CPSC on-campus program, as well as the online programs coordinator for crop sciences, says the online program has something for everyone.

“Most of the students who enroll are looking to advance in their career or find new jobs in agriculture. That can mean anything from urban food production to programming agricultural robots for large commercial-scale row crop production. The opportunities are endless – it just takes a passion for helping people and feeding the world,” he says.

The program offers about 25 courses – from field crop production advising to urban food production to children and nature – to meet the needs of every ag-focused professional. All the courses are taught by world-class faculty, and most are offered in a synchronous format to foster meaningful interactions between faculty and students. Read more here.


Awards & Accomplishments

 Dr. Stephen Long

The Campus Awards for Excellence in Instruction honored Dr. Steve Long with the Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring award as part of the Celebration of Teaching Excellence.

‘Dr. Steve Long ...has an extraordinary record of mentoring a diverse group of graduate students. His group’s field research often involves long days combining strenuous physical effort with high-level intellectual engagement from in silico design, laboratory realization of the design and field testing. When you sit in the audience for a research presentation, however, you see photographs of grimy but shining smiles at the end of each day. And Long may be out there working with the team, even for data collection that starts before dawn...’


Departmental committees are working behind the scenes to improve and promote the department of Crop Sciences. This annual update provides a summary of the activities of each committee by the chairs of the committees. Read more here.





Agronomy Day field events will begin on July 22 and run through Aug 19th. Visit the Tours page for locations, details, and registration. Reserve your space by registering for the date you wish to attend.

If you are not able to attend in-person, do not worry. Videos of the presentation will be posted after the completion of Agronomy Day.

The State of Illinois is now in Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan. Following these guidelines, all unvaccinated event attendees must wear face coverings in university spaces. This will be enforced on an honor system.


Extra! Extra!

Dr. Andrea Farber Taylor 

Don't miss this interview from Red Oak Rain Garden with Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor about her background with horticulture, how she incorporates RORG service learning into her classes, and her research with nature and children. Read it here.



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