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CAFNR Research Digest
CAFNR Office of Research Newsletter // August 15, 2019 // 1(13)
Research Highlights
CAFNR Faculty Well Represented in UM System Project Funding (click to read)
CAFNR Faculty Well Represented in UM System Project Funding »

CAFNR faculty part of approximately $11 million in funding from UM System, Mizzou following strategic research investment

Agricultural Research Centers
Research Center Field Days »

The University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ (CAFNR) Agricultural Research Centers are spread throughout the state and conduct research on everything from cattle genetics to soybeans to pawpaws. The Research Centers represent the uniqueness of agriculture in Missouri. With fertile soil, the Fisher Delta Research Center, located in the Bootheel region, studies rice and cotton. In the northwest part of the state, the Graves-Chapple and Hundley-Whaley Research Centers research best management practices for corn and soybeans. At the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center, in central Missouri, multiple disciplines are explored, such as plant pathology and agronomy. To showcase the endless research taking place at each Research Center, there will be numerous Field Days during the next several months.

Graduate Student Spotlight
Christopher Willig, USDA-NIFA Predoctoral Fellow (click to read)
Christopher Willig, USDA-NIFA Predoctoral Fellow

USDA-NIFA Predoctoral Fellowships provide $165,000 in funding for research over two years. The focus of the program is to prepare the next generation of agricultural scientists by developing their technical and academic competence as well as the ability to independently synthesize ideas and perform research. Each applicant must write a six-page grant that outlines four different plans: a training and career development plan, a mentoring plan, a project plan and an evaluation plan.

What is your fellowship project?
My project is titled: “Characterization of Plant Developmental Genes for Their Ability to Promote Somatic Embryogenesis in Monocot Crops.” What this means is that I’m looking for genes that stimulate plant development, which may enhance our ability to clone plants under laboratory conditions. Starting from a narrowed-down set of gene candidates that I’ve identified from previous experiments, I am going to test some of these genes in the crop plant sorghum by delivering DNA into the plant embryos to see if their survival and growth in tissue culture is improved. The success of this project could lead to new techniques in biotechnology that would advance our ability to genetically engineer crops such as sorghum that are difficult to modify. This would be a valuable addition to the toolkit we have for enhancing crop productivity and stress tolerance to address agricultural demands associated with a growing global population and a changing climate.

What is your research focus?
My research revolves around crop trait enhancement through modern biotechnology including genetic engineering and CRISPR-based genome editing. I am most interested in uncovering, on the level of molecular genetics, the reasons why specific plants or even varieties within a plant species are susceptible to artificial genetic modification while others remain stubbornly resistant to it. My hope is that understanding the underlying causes of this issue can inform the development of ways to overcome the roadblocks to trait improvement in plants that are especially impervious to genetic modification.

Why does this field interest you?
Even before beginning graduate school, I have been fascinated with the science of genetic modification. The ability to directly endow a plant with a specific trait without having to go through an extended process of crossing and backcrossing opens up so many potential avenues for basic research and for innovation in agriculture. As I learned more about this process, I discovered how much time and work went into developing the procedures for producing genetically engineered plants as well as the practical limitations to which varieties of plants could be reliably and efficiently modified. The explosion of research into CRISPR/Cas genome editing in the past few years has opened up yet more opportunities for trait improvement, but its application will also be limited by the same barriers that hinder older genetic engineering technologies. Focusing my research on overcoming one of the factors that limits the utilization of these exciting new capabilities feels like I am making a contribution to the cutting edge of the field of biotechnology.

Why did you decide to come to Mizzou?
I chose Mizzou for my graduate education because there is a strong tradition of agricultural research here. The Division of Plant Sciences is a top-ranked program nationally, and the campus is located only a short distance from St. Louis, which is a major hub of agribusiness and biotechnology startups. After applying to Mizzou, I was provided with an opportunity for funding my education through the Life Science Fellowship Program here. Since I had a particular interest in genetic engineering, the opportunity to share laboratory workspace with the staff at the university’s Plant Transformation Core Facility has enriched my experience at Mizzou by providing me with a broad understanding of the methods used in genetic modification of different plants and hands-on assistance and troubleshooting for my own experiments.

Who is your advisor?
My advisor is Dr. Zhanyuan Zhang in the Division of Plant Sciences. He has almost 20 years of experience at Mizzou as a research professor. Dr. Zhang’s research areas include the development and improvement of crop plant transformation systems, small RNA-mediated gene silencing, coordinated expression of multiple transgenes, and the use of CRISPR/Cas9-based genome editing in crop plants.

What are your future career plans?
After graduating, I hope to find a post-doctoral fellowship where I can expand my experience in plant transformation procedures and genome editing technology, preferably as applied to a specialty crop species for which genome editing has not been previously established. My ultimate career goal is to work in industry research and development, either at an established company or in a startup setting. I want to be involved in directly utilizing CRISPR and related technologies to create trait variation or to solve specific agronomic challenges in specialty crops.

Research Roars

CAFNR faculty members have received the following recent grants (listed by Principal Investigator):

Sybill K. Amelon, Integrating Bat Physiological Responses and Population Status into Assessments of Forest Management Activities and Landscape, 5/1/2018 – 6/30/2020, $150,705, Missouri Department of Conservation

Kerry Clark, BFP19Baah (Liberia) AgStrategicComm@Missouri, 8/1/2019 – 7/31/2021, $47,292, Foreign Agricultural Service

James T. English, Acquisition of Good and Services – PGRUFY19-20, 4/1/2019 – 3/31/2020, $15,076, Agricultural Research Service

Benjamin O. Knapp, Evaluating Effects of Method and Timing of Release on Shortleaf Pine Regeneration in the Missouri Ozarks, 6/20/2017 – 3/1/2022, $9,314, Forest Service

Patrick S. Market, A Case Study of the Midwest Elevated Convective Wind Event of 13 April 2018, 8/1/2019 – 6/30/2020, $14,170, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Azlin Mustapha, BFP19 Tanzania (Mwanyika) FS@Missouri, 8/1/2019 – 7/31/2021, $49,535, Foreign Agricultural Service

Craig Paukert, Potential for Conservation Lands in Middle Mississippi River Floodplains to Mitigate Flood Flows for Ecosystem Services, 8/10/2017 – 9/30/2020, $54,528, US Geological Survey

Randall S. Prather, Immunodeficient FAH -/- Pigs, 6/1/2019 – 5/31/2020, $45,431, Mayo Clinic

Randall S. Prather, National Swine Resource and Research Center 1, 8/1/2019 – 7/31/2020, $1,445,966, NIH Office of the Director

Robert Michael Roberts, Pluripotent Human Stem Cells as Models for Normal and Abnormal Trophoblast at Implantation, 9/25/2018 – 6/30/2020, $450,099, NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Kenneth Schneeberger, BFP19 Malawi (Mapulanga) AgStratComm@UMO, 8/1/2019 – 7/31/2021, $49,888, Foreign Agricultural Service

Kenneth Schneeberger, CFPFY19 Brazil Biofuel Policy@MU, 8/12/2019 – 2/14/2020, $75,576, Foreign Agriculture Service

Jinglu Tan, Acquisition of Goods and Services – CSWQ FY20, $22,000, Agricultural Research Service

Shuqun Zhang, A Plant MAPK Cascade in Effector-Triggered Immunity: Role of Chloroplast-Originated Reactive Oxygen Species, 8/1/2019 – 7/31/2020, $340,000, NSF Division of Integrative Organismal Systems

Zhanyuan Zhang, Transforming Cereal Genomics: Tooling Up for Empowered Phenotyping Platforms, 8/1/2018 – 7/31/2020, $10,000, University of Rhode Island

Provided by the MU Office of Research

In the News

Is Grass Enough?
Ozarks Farm and Neighbor

Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist: Stockpile tall fescue now for winter feeding

Multiple dicamba drift events decrease soybean yield
American Agriculturist

Participants get a taste of tomato heaven in New Franklin
Columbia Missourian

Group to report findings from ‘citizen-scientist’ research on Boyne River
Petosky News Review

China’s exit from US agriculture is a devastating blow to an already struggling sector

Research center adds state’s newest crop
Missouri Farmer Today

Up & Coming Leaders: Meet Paula Chen

Hemp industry taking root at 7 University of Missouri research stations across the state
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Missouri crop quality varies by planting date
Missouri Farmer Today


The featured photo shows the radar at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Jefferson Farm and Garden, which will host an evening of scientific discussion centered on weather and climate in late August. The event, “Science Night at Jefferson Farm and Garden: An Eye on the Sky – A Discussion on Various Weather and Climate Topics,” will run from 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, at Jefferson Farm and Garden, in Columbia. The event will feature the CAFNR atmospheric science program, as well as two live broadcasts by KOMU-TV Chief Meteorologist Kenton Gewecke, who has a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric sciences from MU. The event is open to the public and intended for a wide variety of ages.