U of I celebrates 100 years of research on corn and genetics

U of I celebrates 100 years of research on corn and genetics


URBANA—The University of Illinois has established a record of research on corn quality traits that dates back more than 100 years. The U of I’s Department of Crop Sciences recently celebrated this rich heritage with a major conference featuring leading researchers from the around the world, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The success story of hybrid corn is unrivaled as a contribution of public higher education institutions working in partnership with private industry,” said John Dudley, professor of plant genetics at the U of I. “The basic scientific underpinnings of hybrid corn, which has transformed farming, were developed in the public universities. From the beginning, the U of I has been at the forefront of those dramatic developments.”

The three-day conference detailed the major achievements that have resulted from this innovative research program and highlighted its potential contributions to maize research in the future. The event was sponsored by the U of I, the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR), Syngenta Seeds, Golden Harvest Seeds, Group Limagrain, Pioneer and Illinois Foundation seeds.

“The research program at the U of I was designed from the beginning to enhance the improvement of the corn crop through the use of breeding and genetics and to foster cooperation among faculty,” Dudley said. “A hallmark of the program has been the application of quantitative genetics to applied maize breeding projects.”

The long history of maize research at the U of I also has provided the researchers with access to an important storehouse of germplasm, such as the high-protein strains, that have been accumulated over the years.

“This strength is not duplicated to my knowledge in any other public breeding program,” Dudley said. “Our program also is unique in its emphasis on host plant resistance to diseases. This work is highly visible both in industry and the academic community and serves as a prime example of using science to solve current and future problems.”

Another major strength of the program is the direct access to the expertise and resources of the Maize Genetics Stock Center, which is maintained by the USDA at the U of I. This collection houses thousands of different maize mutations, many of which have the potential for unraveling the genetic mysteries of the corn plant.

“These mutants give maize scientists a greater understanding of corn as a biological organism and thus can lead to applications that will improve corn agronomically,” Dudley said. “Examples from the collection that have had commercial impact include several of the mutants involved in starch biosynthesis that led to the development of supersweet corn.”

Dudley notes that training plant breeders and geneticists is a role for which universities are uniquely suited. No other place has the concentration of diverse expertise needed to provide the basic science background for successful careers in both universities and private companies.

“Unless public institutions maintain high-quality plant breeding research programs, the education of future leaders in the industry will lack relevance.” Dudley said. “With this program at the U of I, we now have in place research and educational efforts which span the continuum from basic laboratory research through a strong molecular marker program to field programs aimed at identifying gene functions and developing ways to apply laboratory findings to corn breeding efforts.”

He points out that such a combination of research and student education provides the perfect springboard for future achievements in improving the corn crop.

“All of these programs together provide three important products: educated plant breeders and geneticists, research information, and enhanced germplasm,” Dudley said. “Working together, we can carry on the long tradition that has made the U of I’s corn breeding and genetics program one of the best in the world.”

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