Department of Crop Sciences

Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Cytogenetics

The University of Illinois plant breeding, genetics and cytogenetics programs in maize, soybean, small grains, bioenergy crops, and horticultural/vegetable crops are an integral part of our efforts to develop highly productive, sustainable, and environmentally friendly agricultural production systems. The Illinois Plant Breeding Center provides support to both faculty and students involved in plant breeding, genetics and cytogenetics to produce the next generation of Plant Breeders.


Plant breeders use traditional breeding methods, genetic and cytogenetic tools to seek to:

  • Improve varieties and genetic stocks for grain quality, yielding ability, and resistance to diseases and insect pests;
  • Maintain and evaluate diversity of genetic stocks; and
  • Develop special use varieties of species, such as soybean with improved seed composition for food use, corn with high and low protein or oil contents or perennial grasses for biofuel feedstocks.

As a Plant Breeder you will have the opportunity to make a difference in lives across the world by improving plants for food, feed, fuel, and fiber. At the Illinois Plant Breeding Center, faculty research programs include (but are not limited to):

  • Bioenergy crops/Biofuels
  • Nutritional aspects of food/feed
  • Genetic regulation
  • Stability and sustainability of production:  yield, biotic and abiotic stress
  • Genotype by environment interaction: genomic to field performance levels
  • Climate change
  • New sources of useful genetic diversity
  • Improved efficiency of plant breeding systems
  • Bioinformatic tool development

Specific examples of maize research includes nitrogen use efficiency, stress/drought tolerance, long-term selection for chemical composition of the corn kernel, the use of molecular markers to aid in selection for quantitative traits and to understand genetic control of grain quality and chemical composition, improvement of germplasm for disease resistance and other traits, and the maintenance of the Maize Genetics Stock Center. This research will lead to improved varieties with higher yields, new commercial uses and markets, and basic information to provide a framework for future sustained progress.

Soybean breeders evaluate and use the diversity of the germplasm collection to increase knowledge of soybean genetics, develop soybean for specific food uses, and develop improved disease and nematode resistance. Progress will lead to improved soybean germplasm and varieties that survive environmental stress and are competitive in domestic and international markets.

The small grains program focuses on development of improved varieties and parental lines of soft red winter wheat and on spring oat, combining enhanced nutritional quality with high yield and other desirable agronomic traits.

The bioenergy feedstocks program focuses on developing sustainable crops for biofuel production including miscanthus, switchgrass, sorghum and high biomass maize. Breeding programs focus on improving biomass, cellulosic composition, stress tolerance, and enhanced traits for to improve production efficiency.

The horticulture/vegetable crop program seeks innovative ways to improve nutritional quality of various crops, including broccoli and cauliflower.

Opportunities for Study

For students with an interest in science—whether in chemistry, biology, biotechnology, or another specialty--plant breeding offers unparalleled options for professional advancement.

However, becoming a plant breeder requires advanced knowledge in fields such as genetics, molecular biology, genomics, statistics, bioinformatics, biochemistry, physiology, and business—along with hands-on experience in a broad range of disciplines (including field and laboratory techniques).

Study in plant breeding and genetics leads to the M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. A specialization in genetics is available for students interested in a broad background in molecular, population, and development genetics.

Course work and thesis research are designed to meet the objectives of the student. Research opportunities may be either field- or laboratory-oriented and range from studies of transformation to selection for and study of genetics of disease resistance in the field. Modern laboratories and a field research center located nearby provide excellent facilities for research.

The Illinois Plant Breeding Center at the University of Illinois offers more than 21 fellowships to support MS and PhD studies in crop genetic improvement.  These fellowships are sponsored by corporations and private individuals, and are primarily merit-based.  Each pays a 12-month stipend, tuition, fees, and health benefits.  All applicants to the Graduate Program (Crop Sciences Department; specialization in areas related to crop improvement such as Plant Breeding, Quantitative Genetics, Bioinformatics, etc.) are considered for these prestigious awards. 

Research Assistantships are also available.  These involve half-time work related to the student’s thesis project and pay an annual stipend, tuition, health benefits, and most student fees.

For additional information, contact Wendy White, Assistant Director of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center, (

Faculty Research Specialization Areas

Students work under the direction of world class faculty offering a rich curriculum in genetics, plant breeding, and statistics/experimental design as well as vast resources across campus in associated disciplinary areas. For more information, go to the Illinois Plant Breeding Center website for a list of faculty and their areas of research.

Career Opportunities

Across the nation, opportunities for professional plant breeders are trending upward.  With three major seed companies in the U.S. recently announcing plans to double research output in the next five years, the demand for experienced plant breeders continues to grow. In fact, the 2008-2009 Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates a nine percent increase in openings for trained agricultural scientists and researchers between 2006 and 2016.

Employment opportunities for M.S. and Ph.D. graduates are excellent. The demand for M.S. graduates to become assistant research station managers for commercial plant breeding companies is greater than the supply. Ph.D. graduates with degrees in plant breeding are in demand by commercial companies. In addition, opportunities exist for Ph.D. graduates in academic institutions and the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service.