Farm Progress

Researchers at K-State win fellowships to study food systems

Kevin Dorn will study differences in annual and perennial plants, while Caroline Ylioja will be studying the health of replacement dairy animals.

February 21, 2017

4 Min Read

By Tiffany Roney

Two agriculture researchers at Kansas State University have received federal fellowships totaling $246,660 to study issues that affect local and worldwide food systems.

Kevin Dorn, associate scientist in plant pathology, was awarded a two-year, $151,660 postdoctoral fellowship to uncover key genes that underlie the difference between annual and perennial plants — a finding that could lead to the development of new perennial grain crops while improving the environment. Caroline Ylioja, a doctoral student in animal science, Canada, was awarded a two-year, $95,000 pre-doctoral fellowship to study strategies that could improve the health of replacement dairy animals and their lifetime milk production.


FOOD SYSTEMS STUDY: A K-State plant pathology associate scientist is using a $151,660 postdoctoral fellowship to study key genes in annual and perennial plants hoping to develop new perennial grain crops.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative fellowships were awarded through the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences Education and Literacy Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"K-State's global reputation for leadership in plant and animal science is a direct result of our ability to attract bright people like Kevin and Caroline," says John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension. "It's pleasing to see them learning and doing meaningful research that affects not only the Kansas economy, but also has worldwide impact."

Dorn's research project aims to shed light on the mechanisms underlying some crops' perennial growth cycles and inform long-standing efforts to “perennialize” major annual crops like wheat. He also will help in the development of new perennial crops like intermediate wheatgrass. This project builds upon Dorn's ongoing research of intermediate wheatgrass genomics, which he and his adviser, Jesse Poland, assistant professor of plant pathology, are exploring in collaboration with The Land Institute and several other academic partners.

"Modern agriculture is facing the grand challenge of feeding a growing population while preserving irreplaceable ecosystems," Dorn says. "Perennial crops offer a unique solution to this challenge, as they can provide a source of food, fuel and fiber with the added benefit that they don't need to be replanted every year. By keeping living roots in the ground year-round, perennials help restore soil health and protect our waterways from pollution."

Dorn has presented the research twice at the Plant and Animal Genome in San Diego, Calif. He is the author and co-author of related manuscripts that were published in Elementa, Crop Science and the Annual Review of Plant Biology. Other research he conducted has been published in a variety of journals and presented at many conferences, including the Next Generation Scientists Conference in Norwich, England; the Nara Institute of Science and Technology's Department of Plant Biology Seminar in Ikoma, Japan; and other venues. He has received numerous awards and scholarships, including a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

"In this work, we are approaching some very novel areas of agriculture, with improving perennial species as new sustainable grain crops," Poland says. "While that is a large and difficult task, there are some huge potential benefits for the environment and sustainable production. Kevin is making excellent contributions to this challenge by addressing some of these complex genomics questions and applying that understanding to crop improvement."

Ylioja's research project concerns colostrum, which is the first milk a cow produces for its calf after giving birth. Typically, the quality of colostrum is measured by its antibody levels, but Ylioja proposes additional strategies, such as assessing the presence of molecules that carry messages between cells, organs and tissue to boost immunity.

"Any way we can help make calves healthier and prevent disease will be beneficial both for the health of the cattle and for our milk supply," Ylioja says. "Ideas that may benefit our food production systems or the sustainability of our agriculture systems are worth pursuing."

An artist as well as a scientist, Ylioja had one of her illustrations and a manuscript she coauthored published last year in the Journal of Dairy Science. Ylioja has presented at Kansas State University's “Research and the State” and at the Capitol Graduate Research Summit in Topeka, where she received a $500 award. Also, she has been a recipient of the Nunemacher Scholarship through the College of Agriculture. Ylioja is a member of the American Dairy Science Association and the animal sciences and industry department's Graduate Student Association. Her adviser is Barry Bradford, professor of animal sciences and industry. Her mentor is Laman Mamedova, research assistant professor of animal sciences and industry.

"Caroline's innovative research takes a different approach to improving the resilience of dairy cattle to disease, which could aid in both increasing milk production and enhancing animal health," Bradford says. "Caroline stands out for her ability to learn complex concepts very quickly while also being able to work with any type of person. Her combination of logical and emotional intelligence is rare and extremely valuable."

Roney writes for the Kansas State News and Communications Service.

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