$5.7 million grant to UI to find ozone-resistant corn

$5.7 million grant to UI to find ozone-resistant corn

CHAMPAIGN — On an ozone action day, when air quality levels are unhealthy, especially for people with conditions like asthma, even plants feel the stress.

And despite what you may think, dangerous levels of ozone do not always concentrate around metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Chicago. A corn field in central Illinois or Iowa can also feel the effects of excessive ozone levels and cause a drop in yields.

Thanks to a $5.7 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Illinois plan to screen different lines of corn in the hopes of finding ozone-resistant ones. Part of the award also will expand an after-school plant biology program at Urbana Middle School and it will establish a summer science day camp for middle school and high school girls at the university.

The team includes principle investigator Lisa Ainsworth, research scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and associate professor in plant biology at the UI; co-investigators Andrew Leakey, assistant professor in plant biology, and Pat Brown, an assistant professor in crop sciences; and Lauren McIntyre, a statistician from the University of Florida. Leakey, Ainsworth and Brown are all part of the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology's Genomic Ecology of Global Change research theme.

The National Science Foundation aims to tackle big, real-world problems such as global food security by bringing together scientists from across a variety of disciplines, to "round out that tool box of skills," Leakey said.

Another aim is to bring together mid-career scientists like Leakey and Ainsworth who were trained in plant physiology, not plant genomics, and partner them with those who are trained in genomics, like Brown.

"The University of Illinois has led the nation in research efforts to develop stronger crop strains, increase crop yields, and keep food prices low," said Sen. Dick Durbin in a release about the award. "This grant will help corn growers in Illinois and across the country meet the challenges brought on by our changing climate, both now and in the future," he said.

Ozone can cause major damage and yield reductions in crops, Ainsworth said. For corn, the estimate is it can cost $700 million a year globally, she said.

"Ozone can cause damage by generating free radicals in cells," Leakey said. It can damage and stress cells causing them to age more quickly, he said.

Although corn growers are quite familiar with pests like corn rootworm or diseases such as fusarium, ozone as a threat to yield "is not on the farmer's radar. It's not something the industry is investigating," Ainsworth said.

She described ozone as a "dynamic pollutant" in which one day a region can have high concentrations and none the next day.

"The thing about ozone is you can't see it," added Brown. Farmers can see when a fungus or insect attacks their fields. Ozone? Not so much.

The work will be done in a controlled field south of campus called SoyFACE (Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment), where scientists have grown plants for 10 years under higher levels of ozone, carbon dioxide, higher temperatures and other conditions.

As for the public-service portion of the grant, the researchers will organize a summer day camp for middle school and high school girls that will focus on pollen and its role in past and future climate change. The camp will have 40 slots for girls, with 15 of them to be fully-paid by the program.

Leakey said the grant will allow the after-school program at the Urbana Middle School called Plants iView, run by the plant biology graduate students group, to develop additional lessons.

They targeted middle school, Leakey said, because it is during this period when students typically start to lose interest in science. That's why it's critical at that stage of their lives, "to show them science in a world-class research university ... to show the real-world value of doing this kind of work," he said.