Iowa State University research team receives $733,795 USDA award to develop improved crops


Photo Credit: Plant Science Institute

By Julie Lelonek, Marketing and Business Engagement Specialist

To help advance research to develop more resilient and nutritious crops and food animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded nine grants totaling $7.4 million. The investments are part of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“Research helps us accelerate the development of improved livestock, poultry, aquaculture, and crops,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “These investments use 21st century precision technologies to develop hardier plants and animals, advances that will contribute to both food security and rural economic development.”

Among these projects, NIFA is funding Iowa State University researchers to optimize plant selection and mating parameters to improve genomic selection (GS) strategies, as well as develop a user-friendly interface for the new GS platform that will increase the efficiency of crop breeding programs.

The award is a $733,795 investment in a collaborative effort between Iowa State researchers from the plant sciences and engineering disciplines. Patrick Schnable, director of the Plant Sciences Institute located at Iowa State in Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor, is the Principal Investigator (PI) on the project along with co-PI’s Lizhi Wang and Guiping Hu, associate professors of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering at Iowa State.

Cutting-edge research being done in the Cultivation Corridor to advance plant sciences is proving vital for a sustainable and prosperous global future. According to Schnable, a consequence of growing populations, changing diets, and the challenges of variable weather patterns, mean our agricultural systems must produce more with less. More meaning meeting greater demand for agricultural products such as food, feed, energy and fiber, and less meaning doing so with reduced agricultural inputs such as water, fertilizer, pesticides and a reduced environmental footprint, all on less land.

Information science and Big Data: revolutionizing crop breeding

Schnable said a key tool for making agriculture systems more productive, sustainable and resilient is genetic improvement via breeding. However, he said, traditional methods used in plant breeding programs, namely, crossbreeding plants repeatedly to get the best traits, do not optimize selection and mating parameters to their fullest potential.

Looking for a better approach, Schnable turned to Wang and Hu, both operations researchers, who are bringing expertise in engineering processes to the project.

“It’s so exciting to see on campus the barriers for collaboration between computational biologists and engineers has been hurdled,” Schnable said. “The team working on this project has worked together before; we recently had a paper accepted in Genetics, leading to the groundwork that led to this proposal.

“Engaging optimization engineers in plant breeding problems is a relatively new thing,” he said. “This particular project uses the framework of optimization research in particularly interesting ways to try to improve efficiency and speed of crop breeding.”

By harnessing Big Data, the scientists are able to make the plant breeding process more focused and less time consuming.

“What’s been done previously is you identify the parent plants of the next generation — with each generation you have to pick who the next generations’ parents will be,” Schnable said. “What has not been explored extensively before and where optimization is being applied here in a novel way is identifying which specific parents should be crossed to other specific parents to produce the next generation.”

Using advanced mathematical programming and optimization techniques, Schnable’s team is also working to develop user-friendly tools to allow breeders to optimize the selection and breeding parameters for their own breeding scenarios.

Worldwide weather variability impacts plant resiliency, creates need for improved crops

The ultimate goal of the research is to improve plant-breeding strategies to address the need for genetically improved crops in rapidly changing environments. Schnable said our civilization depends on it.

“Agriculture was invented during the last 10,000 years and this is a period when weather variability was low — we had very stable weather patterns,” Schnable said. “It’s absolutely clear that we’re entering a period with increasing weather variability, so we need to develop crops that can withstand weather variability and continue to produce high yields even if we get unexpected weather events.”

These weather pattern changes are creating stressors for plants that are not able to adapt to the rapid changes quickly, thus harming yield.

“The way to address that problem is to breed crops to have yield stability. We need new plant breeding efforts to allow us to get there, to get to the crops with high yield stability faster,” he said. “And that’s what this project is developing, those methodologies.”

Read the full USDA press release at