Our Faculty

Faculty in the Illinois Plant Breeding Center are nationally and internationally renowned for their research in a broad range of areas related to plant improvement. You can learn not only from your direct mentor, but from other faculty and industry leaders in the Center’s cooperative environment. Twenty-nine professors in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences—from both the Department of Crop Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences—participate as faculty for the Illinois Plant Breeding Center. Fourteen of our faculty members are involved directly in plant breeding research. Specializations cover an array of agricultural and horticultural crops.

Fred Below
Professor of Plant Physiology
My research focus is phenotyping of physiological traits related to growth, quality, and yield of crop plants, and understanding how these processes can be manipulated with genetics or biotechnology.  Of particular current interest are the genes associated with N responses in maize, along with agronomic and physiological evaluations of nitrogen use efficiency.
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Martin Bohn
Associate Professor of Corn Breeding and Genetics
My research focuses on 1) understanding the genetic basis of biotic stress responses (European corn borer, western corn rootworm, Fusarium), root development, and cell wall biology in maize; 2) combining quantitative genetic theory and genomic tools for new approaches in crop improvement; and 3) investigating the use of genetic diversity in crop improvement. Current projects include the genomic evaluation of the response of maize to western corn rootworm larvae feeding, the investigation of the genetic basis of maize root development, and the improvement of maize as a feedstock for biofuel production.
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Patrick J. Brown
Assistant Professor
My research focuses on the genetic architecture of complex traits in sorghum, the genetic improvement of sorghum as a bioenergy crop, genotyping-by-sequencing, and the maize ear.
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Gustavo Caetano-Anolles
Associate Professor of Bioinformatics
My program deals with computational aspects of evolutionary theory, genomics, and structural biology. My research focuses on creative ways to mine, visualize, and integrate data from structural and functional genomic research. I apply a number of genome analysis techniques to study the basis of plant and microbial diversity, genetic diversity that is useful for breeding, and the role of spontaneous mutation in evolution.
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Steven J. Clough
Assistant Professor of Genetics
and Molecular Biology of Plant-Microbe Interactions
USDA-ARS Research Geneticist
Although I am mostly known for developing the ‘floral dip’ protocol for transforming Arabidopsis, the main goal of my lab is to identify genes and small RNAs playing a role in defense to pathogens. My lab is using high throughput gene expression and sequencing analyses to identify these defense genes, especially in soybean, by monitoring expression during early plant-pathogen interactions. Having completed a variety of expression studies involving bacteria, fungi, aphids, herbicides and symbionts, we then compare these expression patterns using a web-based database that my lab developed. The identified defense-gene candidates and small RNAs are being verified by sequence comparison to mapped defense loci as well as by molecular methods in both soybean and Arabidopsis.
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Brian Diers
Professor of Soybean Breeding & Genetics
My main research interest is focused on developing improved soybean germplasm through identifying and using genes from the soybean germplasm collection. These efforts couple conventional breeding with the mapping of these new genes using molecular markers. A major focus of these efforts is disease, nematode, and insect resistance. In addition to these efforts, my program is engaged in developing soybean varieties for niche markets.
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Glen Hartman
Associate Professor
Join the exciting world of plant pathology, where the battle plays out between host plants and plant pathogens.  Learn how to recognize and manipulate different plant pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and viruses. Get involved in projects where the application of basic research meets applied field research.  One focus in my research group deals with host plant resistance, specifically in soybeans.  Projects include evaluating and discovering new sources of resistance, and developing populations to characterize and map resistance genes.  Host resistance is one of the most effective management tools for controlling soybean diseases, and research needs to stay on the forefront as pathogens evolve to overcome the resistance.  Be a part of this exciting adventure that will lead on us to the next generation of food production.
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Matthew Hudson
Associate Professor of Genomics
My main research interest is in applying cutting-edge genomics and bioinformatics techniques to crop improvement, from both genomic breeding and biotechnology perspectives. Ongoing projects include transcriptomics, systems biology, genome sequencing, and resequencing in soybean, soybean cyst nematode, and maize.
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Tiffany Jamann
Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant Breeding
Plants are in constant contact with harmful microbes that utilize diverse mechanisms of attack. To protect themselves plants have evolved layers of defense that encompass diverse mechanisms of resistance and are shaped by the evolutionary dynamics between the plant and the microbe. We focus on host-microbe interactions in maize. The goal of my program is to mine genetic variation for disease resistance and understand how those genes are functioning in the plant and influencing the interaction. We study a diversity of maize pathogens and are taking a multi-faceted approach utilizing genetics, genomics, molecular biology, and evolutionary biology to understand the interaction between host and microbe. Students will explore questions related to host-microbe interactions and develop a variety of skills related to these approaches. Ultimately exploiting genetic variation and understanding the governing mechanisms will lead to the development of more resistant varieties.
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John Juvik
Interim Director of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center
Professor of Plant Genetics
I have been a vegetable breeder and geneticist at Illinois for 24 years. My research program has involved the creation of genetic linkage maps for tomatoes, sweet corn, and broccoli; use of known genes and DNA marker systems for marker-assisted breeding; biochemical composition analysis of food crops; genetic regulation and quantification of plant defense compounds; breeding and genetics of phytochemicals that promote human health; and chemical ecology and genetics of insect-host plant interactions.
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Frederic L. Kolb
Professor of Plant Breeding
My research is in plant breeding and genetics on soft red winter wheat and spring oats, including variety and germplasm development.  The overall goal of my research is to enhance the productivity and profitability of soft red winter wheat and spring oats. Several areas of emphasis include the improvement of yield, quality, and resistance to diseases. Much of my research is focused on scab (Fusarium head blight) resistance in wheat and barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) tolerance in wheat and oats.
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DK Lee
Assistant Professor
My goal in biomass production research is to find the best perennial grass species, develop the best management practices for environmentally friendly sustainable biomass production for biofuels production.
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Alexander E. Lipka
Assistant Professor
My research goals are to use my background in statistical genetics in an interdisciplinary environment to help answer questions pertaining (but not limited) to crop improvement. In particular, I am interested in the statistical approaches used for genome-wide association studies and genomic selection. In addition to collaborating with scientists and breeders, I would like to develop and apply novel statistical approaches for the analysis of genomic data.
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Stephen Long
My research program has three main foci: 1) increasing crop yields by systems and synthetic engineering of more efficient photosynthesis into crops (funded by the Gates Foundation); 2) analyzing the physiological and molecular factors determining chilling tolerance in corn and Miscanthus, together with the development and application of phenotypic screens of tolerance; and 3) deployment of computational tools for guiding engineering and breeding of more resource use efficient cultivars from leaf photosynthetic biochemistry to crop canopy architecture. A particular focus in both areas 1 and 3, is adaptation to global atmospheric change, which utilizes the unique SoyFACE facility that my group initiated at Illinois. My group is conducting work with maize, soy, sorghum, sugarcane, cassava and the energy crop, Miscanthus.
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Mark Mikel
Adjunct Assistant Professor
Associate Director, Carver Biotechnology Center
I have 20 years of industry experience in corn line development and trait introgression. My research focus is on genealogy and genetic diversity of field and vegetable crops. Recent work includes evaluating genetic diversity of contemporary North American barley, dent corn, and lettuce. Further work is ongoing in gene expression and applications of molecular markers in crop breeding.
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Steve Moose
Associate Professor of Maize Functional Genomics/Genetics
The Moose laboratory is focused on defining the regulatory networks that control gene expression.  We use comparative and functional genomics approaches to discover genes whose expression changes during development or in response to environmental signals.  Genes with presumed regulatory functions are then tested for their phenotypic effects through genetic analysis of mutants, breeding populations, and transgenic plants.  Current projects in the lab focus on the regulation of leaf identity, seed composition, and response to nitrogen.
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Santiago Mideros Mora
Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant Breeding
Farmers across the world use host resistance to plant pathogenic organisms as a first method of disease management. However, due to ever-changing pathogen populations, resistance requires continuous development. At the Field Crop Pathology Lab at UIUC, we study the diversity of pathogen populations, and how major crops resist pathogen infection at the morphological and genetic level. We use and develop high throughput phenotyping, microscopy, molecular biology and quantitative genetics methods to generate valuable information for disease management of field crops.
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Randall Nelson
Professor of Plant Genetics
Research Leader and Supervisory Research Geneticist, USDA-ARS
My research is focused on identifying and utilizing genetic diversity from both the annual and perennial species in the genus Glycine to improve soybean cultivars by increasing yield, modifying seed composition, adapting future varieties to climate change, and improving disease and pest resistance. In each area, the research also includes efforts to understand the genetics of these changes.
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Cameron M. Pittelkow
Assistant Professor of Agronomy
My research focuses on agronomy, nutrient cycling, and cropping systems sustainability. Projects fall in three key areas i) sustainable intensification – options for increasing yields while minimizing soil greenhouse gas emissions, water quality impacts, and energy footprints of agriculture, ii) cropping systems analysis – holistic approaches for quantifying efficiency gains and sustainability tradeoffs, and iii) improved nitrogen management practices – enhancing fertilizer use efficiency and yields while minimizing nitrogen losses to the environment. This work is carried out in Illinois and internationally.
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Lane Rayburn
Professor of Cytogenetics
The focus of research in my laboratory is the role of specific chromosome regions in plant adaptation. With the use of modern cytogenetic techniques, chromosome regions are assessed for their ability to influence specific agronomic traits such as maturity, plant and fruit size, stress resistance, etc. While the bulk of the research has been on maize and wheat, studies utilizing soybean, pumpkin and rhododendron have been initiated.
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Marty Sachs
Director of the Maize Genetics Cooperation - Stock Center
My research interests include maize molecular genetics and plant responses to flooding stress.
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Erik Sacks
Assistant Professor of Perennial Grass Breeding and Genetics
My research is on the genetics and breeding of perennial grasses, with a primary focus on developing high-biomass crops for the emerging bioenergy industry. I am also working on perennial grain crops. I am especially interested in Miscanthus, prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), miscanes (Miscanthus/Saccharum), and perennial interspecific Sorghum. Work includes germplasm collection and characterization, interspecific crosses, domesticating wild species, studies of population structure, using molecular markers to map traits of interest, developing improved breeding and selection methods, and breeding improved cultivars. The overall goal of this work is to establish a strong foundation of germplasm resources, genetic information, and farm-ready cultivars that will facilitate a more sustainable agriculture to meet our energy and food needs.
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Nathan Schroeder
Assistant Professor of Nematology
Our lab studies the biology of plant-parasitic nematodes in order to develop novel control strategies. The most important pathogen of soybean is the soybean cyst nematode, Heterodera glycines. While resistant soybean varieties are available, the majority of these are derived from a single source and resistance-breaking populations are becoming more widespread. Corn is susceptible to over 60 species of plant-parasitic nematodes and yield losses of 20% have been ascribed to nematode damage in the Midwest. However, there are no commercial corn varieties resistant to plant-parasitic nematodes. We are interested in survival strategies of plant-parasitic nematodes and the molecular basis of how plant host signaling impacts survival adaptations.
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Anthony J. Studer
Assistant Professor of Crop Synthetic Biology
Current global challenges highlight the need for more sustainable agricultural systems and increases in crop yields. A deeper understanding of how crops balance CO2 uptake for photosynthesis with transpirational water loss will enable the development of crops to meet global food, feed and fuel demands. In 2015, nearly 89 million acres of corn was planted in the United States (USDA), and each acre transpires 3,000-4,000 gallons of water a day (USGS). Even a modest reduction in transpiration while maintaining rates of photosynthesis would constitute large water savings. Dr. Studer is interested in identifying the genetic control of leaf traits related to photosynthesis and transpiration in maize and related grasses. The Studer Lab embraces an interdisciplinary approach, which leverages genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, and plant physiology to dissect these complex biological processes. The findings from both discovery and applied projects will enable the development of maize and other crops that can better adapt to the changing global climate.
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Maria B. Villamil
Assistant Professor of Agronomy
My overall research goal is to provide the necessary tools and information needs of farmers to adapt current, and adopt new, profitable farming systems which afford protection of environmental quality and long-term productivity of agroecosystems. I am specifically interested in understanding the ecological impacts of cropping and biofuel production systems and the ecosystem services they can potentially provide, with an emphasis on assessing changes of soil attributes and processes as functional soil indicators of agricultural management practices. Additionally, I study the social dimension of agriculture through research on producers’ awareness and information needs regarding agricultural innovations (i.e. bioenergy crops).
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Lila Vodkin
Professor of Plant Molecular Biology,
Charles Adlai Ewing Chair in Soybean Molecular Genetics
Our laboratory investigates the expression, regulation, and transfer of plant genes, using the tools of molecular genetics and functional genomics.  Soybean genomic resources have expanded dramatically in recent years, culminating with the recent sequencing of its genome.  Using this information and the microarray resources developed in our laboratory, we dissect gene networks operating during soybean seed and seedling development in both normal and mutant lines.  We focus on seed traits (protein, oil, and flavonoids) that make soybean the second most valuable economic crop in the U.S.  We also seek to unravel how endogenous small RNAs (microRNAs and siRNAs) silence their target genes during soybean development, using ultra-high throughput sequencing of small RNA populations in various organ systems of the plant.
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David R. Walker
Assistant Professor of Plant Genetics
USDA-ARS Research Geneticist
My research is focused on the identification and exploitation of soybean germplasm with resistance to soybean rust. The ultimate applied research goal is to develop high-yielding, rust-resistant breeding lines by transferring resistance genes from a variety of germplasm sources to the genetic backgrounds of high-yielding but susceptible soybean lines and cultivars. Complementary studies are being conducted to investigate the genetics of resistance to soybean rust, the genomic locations and contributions of genes associated with resistance, and methods that can be used to effectively and efficiently evaluate rust resistance in field, greenhouse and laboratory studies. Other areas of research include investigations of host plant-rust interactions, soybean tolerance to rust infections, and development of improved integrated management strategies that combine host resistance with chemical and cultural approaches to controlling soybean rust epidemics.
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Frank Zhao
Assistant Professor
Research in my laboratory focuses on bacterial plant pathogens and the diseases they cause. Our long term goal is to understand how microbial pathogens cause disease in higher plants, how host plants respond to bacterial infection, and how bacterial pathogens respond under different environmental conditions or during interactions with host plants. Better understanding the genetics and molecular mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis, and practical information on how bacterial pathogens interact with host plants and environmental conditions will lead to the development of improved disease management strategies and reduce the threat to sustainable agriculture and food supply. Both bacterial genetics and comparative and functional genomics approaches will be used in my research program.
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