Department of Crop Sciences
Erik Sacks
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Erik Sacks

Associate Professor of Perennial Grass Breeding And Genetics
279 E R Madigan Laboratory
1201 W. Gregory Dr.
Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 333-9327


Ph.D: Genetics, University of California, Davis — 1996
M.S.: Horticulture, University of California, Davis — 1992
B.S.: Plant Breeding, Cornell University — 1990

Research Areas

Research Themes: The long-term goal of my research is to use the tools of genetics to facilitate the breeding of improved crop cultivars that will address important societal needs, such as the sustainable production of food, fiber, and energy. My past research has included work on rice, tomato, cotton, strawberry, blueberry, and, most recently, perennial bioenergy grasses. Major research themes of my career have been: expanding the use of germplasm resources, especially wild relatives, for crop improvement, and developing new crop types (e.g. perennial grain crops, and Miscanthus for bioenergy). Relatives of domesticated plants represent a vast reservoir of potentially useful genes, but obtaining viable, fertile progeny from crosses between different species is often difficult. By understanding how genetics and environment affect the likelihood of obtaining interspecific or intergeneric progeny, one can more efficiently use natural germplasm resources to improve existing crops or to develop new ones. In past research, I have used such knowledge to introgress desirable genes, such as resistance to reniform nematodes into upland cotton, and to initiate the development of a new crop, perennial upland rice, for the erosion-prone uplands of Southeast Asia. My current work builds upon these themes by developing new bioenergy crops via wide crosses, and by tapping the genetic diversity of wild Oryza species for improvement of domesticated Asian rice (O. sativa).
Bioenergy: Bioenergy crops can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, help mitigate human-induced climate change, and bolster agriculture. Some perennial grasses have the potential to assimilate large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and this primarily cellulosic biomass can be used for energy by direct burning or by conversion to liquid fuels. Moreover, the underground shoots and roots of these perennial grasses help conserve and build soil, sequester carbon, and enable efficient use of nutrients and water. My research on bioenergy is currently focused on the genetics and breeding of Miscanthus, and miscanes (Miscanthus × Saccharum), and the use of Miscanthus as a genetic resource for improving sugarcane. Miscanthus is a genus of perennial warm-season grasses native to Asia that is closely related to sugarcane (Saccharum); however, most populations of Miscanthus are adapted to temperate environments. Miscanthus is only in the initial stages of domestication, therefore much foundational work on germplasm characterization and development is needed. Though Miscanthus has been grown as an ornamental in American gardens since the early 1870’s and ~100 cultivars are available commercially, biomass production of Miscanthus in North America is currently based on only one sterile genotype of M. ×giganteus (Mxg). Mxg is a nothospecies, derived from hybridization between M. sacchariflorus (Msa) and M. sinensis (Msi), which are broadly distributed in eastern Asia. Thus, my lab has been crossing Msa and Msi to breed new genotypes of Mxg, selecting the parents to maximize yield and adaptation to U.S. environments. To support these breeding efforts, we have been collecting Miscanthus germplasm in the wild and obtaining genetic information about these populations. To build a useful resource base for crop improvement, we have been phenotyping materials in multi-location replicated field trials, and using molecular markers to study genetic diversity and population structure. This latter work has given us some interesting insights into the evolution of Miscanthus (see publications listed below). For the molecular work, our lab has adopted high-throughput sequencing methods to obtain thousands of molecular markers, which has enabled high resolution genetic mapping and fine-scale elucidation of genetic relationships among wild-collected plants. To study the genetics governing key traits in Miscanthus (e.g. adaptation, pest and disease resistance, yield, and quality) we are conducting genetic mapping on biparental cross populations, and genome-wide association analyses on germplasm panels. We are also finding that Miscanthus is a promising genetic resource for improving sugarcane. In particular, Miscanthus is an excellent source of genes for winter hardiness, dormancy, and low temperature photosynthesis. Breeding cold tolerance from Miscanthus into sugarcane could allow this tropical crop to be grown at higher latitudes and elevation than is currently possible, thereby expanding the potential production area of this important crop. Additionally, we have identified Miscanthus genotypes that are strongly resistant to root lesion nematodes (Pratylenchus spp.), which are an important pest of sugarcane. We use a specially built tall greenhouse that also allows us to carefully control day-length, allowing us to flower sugarcane and make crosses in central Illinois.
Perennial Grains: Annual grains (e.g. rice, maize, wheat) are currently the foundation of the human food supply. However, annual production systems are prone to soil-erosion and nutrient-runoff, and require considerable inputs of nutrients and water to achieve high productivity. Why annuals and not perennials? It was not the outcome of a carefully conceived plan but rather a consequence of selection by the first farmers. Given the right cultivars, perennial production systems may be able to mitigate many of these environmental problems while still meeting the primary production needs of society. Such a goal is worth pursuing because perennial grain crops could provide enhanced ecosystem services, which would reduce the environmental and economic costs of food production. For example, in Texas and Louisiana, about half the rice acreage is ratooned to obtain a second crop with little additional inputs; however, the ratoon crop yield is typically less than half of the main crop yield. Recently, a colleague and former student based at the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Dr. Fengyi Hu, has developed interspecific rice breeding-lines that produce high yields in both the main crop and the ratoon crop, demonstrating that big gains can be made. For Illinois, we have found the perennial rye (Secale montanum) is a promising perennial grain. Dual-use crops, such as grain and bioenergy, or grain and forage are also of interest.
Rice: Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world's population and it is especially important in developing countries. Thus, improvements in rice productivity can have large, global-scale impacts on food security. Wild relatives of domesticated Asian rice (O. sativa) are a tremendous but largely untapped source of genes for genetic improvement, especially genes for resistance to pests and tolerance to abiotic stresses. Thus, our long-term goal is to put these valuable genes in the hands of farmers. A major goal of our work on rice is to systematically access genes from the wild, African, A-genome diploid species, O. longistaminata, for the improvement of domesticated rice. Because O. longistaminata is self-incompatible and distributed broadly throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it has great genetic diversity; but it has been little-used for rice improvement due to considerable breeding barriers with O. sativa. In collaboration with the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, we are developing a high-density genetic map for a recombinant inbred line population (~300 RILs) derived from O. sativa/O. longistaminata. Concurrently, the RIL population is being phenotyped for several traits, with the goal of identifying QTL that can subsequently be introgressed into O. sativa. In a complementary study, we are evaluating a diversity panel of ~200 O. longistaminata accessions in the greenhouse, with the goals of determining population structure, identifying sources of abiotic stress tolerance, and finding QTL via genome wide association analyses. Additionally, we are studying seedling stage cold tolerance within O. sativa so as to improve production in areas challenged by this stress. Cold water and/or air can impede rice plant growth, permanently damaging or destroying the crop and reducing yield. Low temperature stress affects ~7 million ha of rice production in South and Southeast Asia. In collaboration with scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, we are screening a subset of the recently sequenced accessions in the 3,000 rice genomes project (3K RGP) for seedling stage cold tolerance.


Assistant Professor of Perennial Grass Breeding, Dept. of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois (2010 - present)
Manager, Plant Breeding, Mendel Biotechnology Inc. (2009 - 2010)
Senior Plant Breeder, Mendel Biotechnology Inc. (2007 - 2009)
Research Geneticist (Plants), Crop Genetics & Production Research Unit, USDA-ARS, Stoneville, MS (2004 - 2007)
Scientist, HortResearch, New Zealand (2001 - 2002)
Affiliate Scientist & Project Coordinator, Plant Breeding, Genetics & Biochemistry Division, International Rice Research Institute, Philippines (1999 - 2001)
Post Doctoral Researcher, Department of Nematology, University of California, Davis (1997 - 1999)
Post Doctoral Researcher, Department of Horticulture, The Ohio State Univ. Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center (1997)

Journal Articles

Liu, S., L.V. Clark, K. Swaminathan, J.M. Gifford, J.A. Juvik, and E.J. Sacks. (In Press) High density genetic map of Miscanthus sinensis reveals inheritance of zebra stripe. GCB Bioenergy.
Głowacka, K., U. Jørgensen, J. Kjeldsen, K. Kørup, I. Spitz, E. Sacks, and S. Long. (In Press) Can the exceptional chilling tolerance of C4 photosynthesis found in Miscanthus × giganteus be exceeded? Screening of a novel Miscanthus Japanese germplasm collection. Annals of Botany.
Kaiser, C.M., L.V. Clark, J.A. Juvik, T.B. Voigt, and E.J. Sacks. (In Press) Characterizing a Miscanthus Germplasm Collection for Yield, Yield-Components, and Genotype × Environment Interactions. Crop Science.
Tamura K.I., Y. Sanada, A. Shoji, K. Okumura, N. Uwatoko, K.G. Anzoua, E.J. Sacks, and T. Yamada. (In Press) DNA markers for identifying interspecific hybrids between Miscanthus sacchariflorus and Miscanthus sinensis. Grassland Science.
Kaiser, C.M., and E.J. Sacks. (In Press) Cold-tolerance of Miscanthus seedlings and effects of spring and autumn frosts on mature clonally replicated cultivars. Crop Science.
Clark, L.V., J.R. Stewart, A. Nishiwaki, Y. Toma, J.B. Kjeldsen, U. Jørgensen, H. Zhao, J. Peng, J.H. Yoo, K. Heo, C.Y. Yu, T. Yamada, and E.J. Sacks. 2015. Genetic structure of Miscanthus sinensis and M. sacchariflorus in Japan indicates a gradient of bidirectional but asymmetric introgression. J. Exp. Bot. doi:10.1093/jxb/eru51.
Głowacka, K., S. Adhikari, J. Peng, J. Gifford, J.A. Juvik, S.P. Long, and E.J. Sacks. 2014. Variation in chilling tolerance for photosynthesis and leaf extension growth among genotypes related to the C4 grass Miscanthus ×giganteus. J. Exp. Bot. 65:5267-5278.
Clark, L.V., J.E. Brummer, K. Głowacka, M. Hall, K. Heo, J. Peng, T. Yamada, J.H. Yoo, C.Y. Yu, H. Zhao, S.P. Long, and E.J. Sacks. 2014. A footprint of past climate change on the diversity and population structure of Miscanthus sinensis. Annals of Botany 114:97-107.
Głowacka, K., L.V. Clark, S. Adhikari, J. Peng, J.R. Stewart, A. Nishiwaki, T. Yamada, U. Jørgensen, T.R. Hodkinson, J. Gifford, J.A. Juvik, and E.J. Sacks. 2014. Genetic variation in Miscanthus ×giganteus and the importance of estimating genetic distance thresholds for differentiating clones. GCB Bioenergy doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12166.
Sacks, E.J. 2014. Perennial rice: challenges and opportunities. In: C, Batello, S. Cox, L. Wade, N. Pogna, A. Bozzini, and J. Choptiany (eds.). Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services in agricultural production: Proceedings from the FAO Expert Workshop on Perennial Crops for Food Security. FAO, Rome.
Chae, W.B., S.J. Hong, J.M. Gifford, A.L. Rayburn, E.J. Sacks, and J.A. Juvik. 2014. Plant morphology, genome size and SSR markers differentiate five distinct taxonomic groups among accessions in the genus Miscanthus. GCB Bioenergy doi: 10.1111/gcbb.1210.
Sacks, E.J., J.A. Juvik, Q. Lin, J.R. Stewart, and T. Yamada. 2013. The gene pool of Miscanthus species and its improvement, p. 73-101. In: A.H. Paterson (ed.). Genomics of the Saccharinae. Plant Genetics and Genomics: Crops and Models. Vol. 11. Springer, New York.
Seong, E.S, J.H. Yoo, J.G. Lee, H.Y. Kim, I.S. Hwang, K. Heo, J.D. Lim, D.K. Lee, E.J. Sacks, and C.Y. Yu. 2013. Transient overexpression of the Miscanthus sinensis glucose-6-phosphate isomerase gene (MsGPI) in Nicotiana benthamiana enhances expression of genes related to antioxidant metabolism. Plant Omics Journal 6:408-414.
Seong, E.S., J.H. Yoo, J.G. Lee, H.Y. Kim, I.S. Hwang, K. Heo, J.K. Kim, J.D. Lim, E.J. Sacks, and C.Y. Yu. 2013. Antisense-overexpression of the MsCOMT gene induces changes in lignin and total phenol contents in transgenic tobacco plants. Mol. Biol. Rep. 40:1979-1986.
Kim, C., D. Zhang, S.A. Auckland, L.K. Rainville, K. Jakob, B. Kronmiller, E.J. Sacks, M. Deuter, and A.H. Paterson. 2012. SSR-based genetic maps of Miscanthus sinensis and M. sacchariflorus, and their comparison to sorghum. Theor. Appl. Genet. 124:1325â€"1338.
Glover, J.D., J.P. Reganold, L.W. Bell, J. Borevitz, E.C. Brummer, E.S. Buckler, C.M. Cox, T.S. Cox, T.E. Crews, S.W. Culman, L.R. DeHaan, D. Eriksson, B.S. Gill, J. Holland, F. Hu, B.S. Hulke, A.M.H. Ibrahim, W. Jackson, S.S. Jones, S.C. Murray, A.H. Paterson, E. Ploschuk, E.J. Sacks, S. Snapp, D. Tao, D.L. Van Tassel, L.J. Wade, D.L. Wyse, and Y. Xu. 2010. Perennial questions of hydrology and climate response (Letter). Science 330:33-34.
Glover, J.D., J.P. Reganold, L.W. Bell, J. Borevitz, E.C. Brummer, E.S. Buckler, C.M. Cox, T.S. Cox, T.E. Crews, S.W. Culman, L.R. DeHaan, D. Eriksson, B.S. Gill, J. Holland, F. Hu, B.S. Hulke, A.M.H. Ibrahim, W. Jackson, S.S. Jones, S.C. Murray, A.H. Paterson, E. Ploschuk, E.J. Sacks, S. Snapp, D. Tao, D.L. Van Tassel, L.J. Wade, D.L. Wyse, and Y. Xu. 2010. Increased food and ecosystem security via perennial grains. Science 328:1638-1639.
Zhao, M., Z. Ding, R. Lafitte, E. Sacks, G. Dimayuga, and D. Holt. 2010. Photosynthetic characteristics in Oryza species. Photosynthetica 48: 234-240.
Romano, G.B., E.J. Sacks, S.R. Stetina, A. F. Robinson, D.D. Fang, O.A. Gutierrez, and J.A. Scheffler. 2009. Identification and genomic location of a reniform nematode (Rotylenchulus reniformis) resistance locus (Renari) introgressed from Gossypium aridum into upland cotton (G. hirsutum). Theor. Appl. Genet. 120:139-150.
Sacks, E.J. and A.F. Robinson. 2009. Introgression of resistance to reniform nematode (Rotylenchulus reniformis) into upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) from Gossypium arboreum and a G. hirsutum/Gossypium aridum bridging line. Field Crops Res. 112:1-6.
Kantartzi, S.K., M. Ulloa, E. Sacks, and J.Mc.D. Stewart. 2009. Assessing genetic diversity in Gossypium arboreum L. cultivars using genomic and EST-derived microsatellites. Genetica 136:141-147.
Sacks, E.J. and A.F. Robinson. 2008. Development of trispecies backcross populations using a 2(ADD) hexaploid bridging line to introgress genes from A-genome diploids into upland cotton. Proceedings of the World Cotton Research Conferences-4, Paper 2000. [Peer-reviewed paper].
Robinson, A.F., P. Agudelo, C.A. Avila, A.A. Bell, F.E. Callahan, C.G. Cook, N.D. Dighe, O.A. Gutierrez, R.W. Hayes, J.N. Jenkins, J.T. Johnson, R. Kantety, G.W. Lawrence, K.S. Lawrence, L. Mangineni, J.C. McCarty, M.A. Menz, W.A. Meredith Jr., R.L. Nichols, R.T. Robbins, E. Sacks, B. Scheffler, G.L. Sciumbato, C.W. Smith, J.L. Starr, D.M. Stelly, S.R. Stetina, J.McD. Stewart, P.M. Thaxton, T.P. Wallace, D.B. Weaver, M.J. Wubben, and L.D. Young. 2008. Development of reniform nematode resistance in upland cotton. Proceedings of the World Cotton Research Conferences-4, Paper 1320. [Invited, peer-reviewed, paper].
Sacks, E.J. 2008. Ovule rescue efficiency of Gossypium hirsutum × G. arboreum progeny from field-grown fruit is affected by media composition and antimicrobial compounds. Plant Cell Tiss Organ Cult. 93:15-20.
Zhao, M., T.L.B Acuna, H.R. Lafitte, G. Dimayuga, and E. Sacks. 2008. Perennial hybrids of Oryza sativa × Oryza rufipogon: Part II. Carbon exchange and assimilate partitioning. Field Crops Res. 106:214-223.
Zhao, M., H.R. Lafitte, E Sacks, G. Dimayuga, and T.L.B. Acuna. 2008. Perennial O. sativa × O. rufipogon interspecific hybrids: I. Photosynthetic characteristics and their inheritance. Field Crops Res. 106:203-213.
Sacks, E.J., M.P. Dhanapala, M.T. Sta. Cruz, and R. Sallan. 2007. Clonal performance of perennial Oryza sativa/O. rufipogon selections and their combining ability with O. sativa cultivars for survival, stolon production and yield. Field Crops Res. 100:155-167.
Sacks, E.J., H.K. Abbas, and A. Mengistu. 2006. First report of endophytic Candida ipomoeae isolated from ovules of upland cotton in Mississippi. Plant Dis. 90:1362.
Sacks, E.J., M.P. Dhanapala, D.Y. Tao, M.T. Sta. Cruz, and R. Sallan. 2006. Breeding for perennial growth and fertility in an Oryza sativa/O. longistaminata population. Field Crops Res. 95:39-48.
Sacks, E.J., V. Schmit, K.L. McNally, and M.T. Sta. Cruz. 2006. Fertility in an interspecific rice population and its effect on selection for rhizome length. Field Crops Res. 95:30-38.
Yang, W., E.J. Sacks, M.L. Lewis Ivey, S.A. Miller, and D.M. Francis. 2005. Resistance in Lycopersicon esculentum intraspecific crosses to Race T1 strains of Xanthomonas campestris pv. vesicatoria causing bacterial spot of tomato. Phytopathology 95:519-527.
Hu, F.Y., D.Y. Tao, E. Sacks, B.Y. Fu, P. Xu, J. Li, Y. Yang, K. McNally, G.S. Khush, A.H. Paterson, and Z.-K. Li. 2003. Convergent evolution of perenniality in rice and sorghum. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100:4050-4054.
Sacks, E.J., J.P. Roxas, and M.T. Sta. Cruz. 2003. Developing perennial upland rice II: Field performance of S1 families from an intermated Oryza sativa/O. longistaminata population. Crop Sci. 43:129-134.
Sacks, E.J., J.P. Roxas, and M.T. Sta. Cruz. 2003. Developing perennial upland rice I: Field performance of Oryza sativa/O. rufipogon F1, F4 and BC1F4 progeny. Crop Sci. 43:120-128.
Hu, F.-Y., D.-Y. Tao, P. Xu, J. Li, Y. Yang, E. Sacks, K. McNally, T.S. Cruz, J. Zhou, and Z. Li. 2001. Two dominant complementary genes controlling rhizomatous expression in Oryza longistaminata. Rice Genet. Newsl. 18:34-36.
Kubota, S., J. Egdane, E. Sacks, and O. Ito. 2001. Growth and flowering of perennial rice in different moisture conditions. Jap. J. Crop Sci. 70(Extra Iss.1):80-81.
Tao, D., F. Hu, Y. Yang, P. Xu, J. Li, G. Wen, E. Sacks, K. McNally, and P. Sripichitt. 2001. Rhizomatous individual was obtained from interspecific BC2F1 progenies between Oryza sativa and Oryza longistaminata. Rice Genet. Newsl. 18:11-13.
Sacks, E.J. and D.M. Francis. 2001. Genetic and environmental variation for flesh color of tomato fruit in a population of modern breeding lines. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 126:221-226.
Sacks, E.J. and D.A. St. Clair. 1998. Variation among seven genotypes of Lycopersicon esculentum and 36 accessions of L. hirsutum for interspecific crossability. Euphytica 101:185-191.
Sacks, E.J., L.M. Gerhardt, E.B. Graham, J. Jacobs, T.A. Thorrup, and D.A. St. Clair. 1997. Variation among 41 genotypes of Lycopersicon esculentum for crossability to L. peruvianum. Annals of Botany 80:469-477.
Sacks, E.J. and D.A. St. Clair. 1996. Cryogenic storage of tomato pollen: effect on fecundity. HortScience 31:447-448.
Shaw, D.V. and E.J. Sacks. 1995. Response in genotypic and breeding value to a single generation of divergent selection for fresh fruit color in strawberry. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 120:270-273.
Sacks, E.J. and D.V. Shaw. 1994. Optimum allocation of objective color measurements for evaluating fresh strawberry fruit. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 119:330-334.
Sacks, E.J. and D.V. Shaw. 1993. Color change in fresh strawberry fruit of seven genotypes stored at 0C. HortScience 28:209-210.
Sacks, E. 1993. Masdevallia madness. Amer. Orch. Soc. Bull. 62:586-589. (Extension).