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It may look jury-rigged, but it’s cutting-edge science.

In a back room in the university’s Seeds Building, researchers scan ears of corn—three at a time—on a flatbed scanner, the kind you’d find at any office supply store. After running the ears through a shelling machine, they image the de-kerneled cobs on a second scanner.

The resulting image files—up to 40 gigabytes’ worth per day—are then run through a custom-made software program that outputs an array of yield-related data for each individual ear. Ultimately, the scientists hope to link this type of information—along with lots of other descriptive data about how the plants grow and what they look like—back to the genes that govern those physical traits. It’s part of a massive national effort to deliver on the promise of the corn genome, which was sequenced back in 2009, and help speed the plant breeding process for this widely grown crop.

“When it comes to crop improvement, the genotype is more or less useless without attaching it to performance,” explains Bill Tracy, professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy. “The big thing is phenotyping—getting an accurate and useful description of the organism—and connecting that information back to specific genes. It’s the biggest thing in our area of plant sciences right now, and we as a college are playing a big role in that.”

No surprise there. Since the college’s founding, plant scientists at CALS have been tackling some of the biggest issues of their day. Established in 1889 to help fulfill the University of Wisconsin’s land grant mission, the college focused on supporting the state’s fledgling farmers, helping them figure out how to grow crops and make a living at it. At the same time, this practical assistance almost always included a more basic research component, as researchers sought to understand the underlying biology, chemistry and physics of agricultural problems.

Bill Tracy
Agronomist Bill Tracy (in blue shirt) assesses corn traits at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann. Banner photo: Information from scanned images of corn helps researchers connect various traits back to specific genes. Photo by Sevie Kenyon.

That approach continues to this day, with CALS plant scientists working to address the ever-evolving agricultural and natural resource challenges facing the state, the nation and the world. Taken together, this group constitutes a research powerhouse, with members based in almost half of the college’s departments, including agronomy, bacteriology, biochemistry, entomology, forest and wildlife ecology, genetics, horticulture, plant pathology and soil science.

“One of our big strengths here is that we span the complete breadth of the plant sciences,” notes Rick Lindroth, associate dean for research at CALS and a professor of entomology. “We have expertise across the full spectrum—from laboratory to field, from molecules to ecosystems.”

This puts the college in the exciting position of tackling some of the most complex and important issues of our time, including those on the applied science front, the basic science front—and at the exciting new interface where the two approaches are starting to intersect, such as the corn phenotyping project.

“The tools of genomics, informatics and computation are creating unprecedented opportunities to investigate and improve plants for humans, livestock and the natural world,” says Lindroth. “With our historic strength in both basic and applied plant sciences, the college is well positioned to help lead the nation at this scientific frontier.”

It’s hard to imagine what Wisconsin’s agricultural economy would look like today without the assistance of CALS’ applied plant scientists.

The college’s early horticulturalists helped the first generation of cranberry growers turn a wild bog berry into an economic crop. Pioneering plant pathologists identified devastating diseases in cabbage and potato, and then developed new disease-resistant varieties. CALS agronomists led the development of the key forage crops—including alfalfa and corn—that feed our state’s dairy cows.

Fast-forward to 2015: Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries, is third in the nation in potatoes and has become America’s Dairyland. And CALS continues to serve the state’s agricultural industry.

The college’s robust program covers a wide variety of crops and cropping systems, with researchers addressing issues of disease, insect and weed control; water and soil conservation; nutrient management; crop rotation and more. The college is also home to a dozen public plant-breeding programs—for sweet corn, beet, carrot, onion, potato, cranberry, cucumber, melon, bean, pepper, squash, field corn and oats—that have produced scores of valuable new varieties over the years, including a number of “home runs” such as the Snowden potato, a popular potato chip variety, and the HyRed cranberry, a fast-ripening berry designed for Wisconsin’s short growing season.

While CALS plant scientists do this work, they also train the next generation of researchers—lots of them. The college’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program, with faculty from nine departments, has trained more graduate students than any other such program in the nation. Just this past fall, the Biology Major launched a new plant biology option in response to growing interest among undergraduates.

“If you go to any major seed company, you’ll find people in the very top leadership positions who were students here in our plant-breeding program,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture.

Among the college’s longstanding partnerships, CALS’ relationship with the state’s potato growers is particularly strong, with generations of potato growers working alongside generations of CALS scientists. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), the commodity group that supports the industry, spends more than $300,000 on CALS-led research each year, and the group helped fund the professorship that brought Jeff Endelman, a national leader in statistical genetics, to campus in 2013 to lead the university’s potato-breeding program.

“Research is the watchword of the Wisconsin potato and vegetable industry,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the WPVGA. “We enjoy a strong partnership with CALS researchers in an ongoing effort to solve problems and improve crops, all with the goal of enhancing the economic vitality of Wisconsin farmers.”

corn stalks
Agronomist Shawn Kaeppler is testing corn for drought resistance in the Walnut Street Greenhouses on the UW-Madison campus. Photo by Sevie Kenyon

Over the decades, multi-disciplinary teams of CALS experts have coalesced around certain crops, including potato, pooling their expertise.

“Once you get this kind of core group working, it allows you to do really high-impact work,” notes Patty McManus, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and a UW–Extension fruit crops specialist.

CALS’ prowess in potato, for instance, helped the college land a five-year, $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help reduce levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, in French fries and potato chips. The multistate project involves plant breeders developing new lines of potato that contain lower amounts of reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and asparagine, which combine to form acrylamide when potatoes are fried. More than a handful of conventionally bred, low-acrylamide potato varieties are expected to be ready for commercial evaluations within a couple of growing seasons.

“It’s a national effort,” says project manager Paul Bethke, associate professor of horticulture and USDA-ARS plant physiologist. “And by its nature, there’s a lot of cross-talk between the scientists and the industry.”

Working with industry and other partners, CALS researchers are responding to other emerging trends, including the growing interest in sustainable agricultural systems.

“Maybe 50 years ago, people focused solely on yield, but that’s not the way people think anymore. Our crop production people cannot just think about crop production, they have to think about agroecology, about sustainability,” notes Tracy. “Every faculty member doing production research in the agronomy department, I believe, has done some kind of organic research at one time or another.”

Embracing this new focus, over the past two years CALS has hired two new assistant professors—Erin Silva, in plant pathology, who has responsibilities in organic agriculture, and Julie Dawson, in horticulture, who specializes in urban and regional food systems.

“We still have strong partnerships with the commodity groups, the cranberries, the potatoes, but we’ve also started serving a new clientele—the people in urban agriculture and organics that weren’t on the scene for us 30 years ago,” says Goldman. “So we have a lot of longtime partners, and then some new ones, too.”

Continue reading this story in the Summer 2015 issue of Grow magazine.