News Release

Rooting for ecosystem services: New U of I project goes underground

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

URBANA, Ill. – Decades of corn breeding efforts emphasizing yield have contributed to modern hybrids with shallower and less complex root systems than their predecessors. Because the breeding and selection of most modern hybrids has taken place in environments with high nutrient concentrations, optimal weed control, and soil moisture conditions, hybrids perform best under high input systems.   With help from a new four-year, $1.5 million grant from USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois plans to study overlooked attributes of corn roots.

“Unfortunately, the shallower root systems of many modern hybrids are not ideal under the changing Midwest climate. They also aren’t well suited for rainfed crops grown in diversified or organic operations that seek to tighten nutrient cycles and rely more on soil-derived fertility than added inputs. We are interested in plants that invest resources in the production of efficient roots without compromising yield,” says Carmen Ugarte, research assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

The research team, including Ugarte, Michelle Wander, Chloe Wardropper, and Martin Bohn, hail from two departments within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.  Their new grant investigates maize roots for organic/regenerative systems and explores ways to manipulate the agroecosystem to optimize carbon storage, resource use efficiency, and productivity. The researchers will work with farmers to learn how they use information about crop and soil conditions to balance management goals.

In addition to optimizing yield, the team will work to develop corn roots that respond to changing soil conditions that are driven by management, like rotation length and diversity. Ideally, they’d like to see root systems that give back to the soil by providing ecosystem services even under different weather scenarios.

“We want root systems that can withstand high precipitation in the spring and be able to efficiently capture nutrients and water from deeper in the soil profile during the summer when the topsoil is dry. Working with a multi-disciplinary team lets us envision high-yielding corn production systems that provide positive environmental services. We are interested in finding the ideal root model for this region,” Ugarte says. “This model, if effective in the field, can help mitigate some of the environmental problems associated with modern agriculture by preventing leakage of nutrients to surrounding water systems and the atmosphere.”

The team will use a set of soil and root traits to quantify the ecosystem services provided by organic grain farming systems. This research will be carried out in part at the newly USDA-certified Illinois Organic Trial in the U of I South Farms complex.

“We will study root traits for a large number of corn hybrids and their parental inbreds. Combining the resulting phenotypic data with genetic information, we will define root ideotypes that are perfectly adapted to organic production systems and find the genes involved. Knowing the genetic basis of root architectural and functional traits will accelerate our breeding efforts,” says Bohn, who leads the organic corn breeding program in the Department of Crop Sciences. “However, the key is testing experimental inbreds and hybrids under different management and fertility backgrounds at the Illinois Organic Trial and at on-farm locations across the Midwest.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop corn that performs well in diverse organic systems throughout the Corn Belt. Another goal is to empower farmers to optimize their management while minimizing the environmental footprint of grain production systems, benefitting soil and water, and air resources and farmers’ bottom lines.

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