Department of Crop Sciences

Crop Genetic Improvement

  • Is the science of applying genetic and plant breeding principles as well as biotechnology to improve plants for human use.
  • Impacts the life of every individual in the world on a daily basis.
  • Has been enormously successful in achieving improved yields, disease resistance, nutritional quality, industrial uses and landscape/horticultural aesthetics.
  • Faces future grand challenges due to projected increases in global population, increased consumption of protein as the standard of living increases, limits to production resources such as land, water, and climate change.

The University of Illinois is a world leader in the improvement of crop varieties through plant breeding, biotechnology, and genome science.  Faculty, students and alumni of the University of Illinois helped establish the scientific discipline of plant breeding in the 20th century.  Scientists in Crop Sciences have been pioneers in developing modern corn hybrids, insect and disease resistant varieties of corn, enhancing corn grain and nutritional quality, introducing soybean as a grain crop in the United States, introducing new varieties of wheat, oats and barley, developing “supersweet” corn, and more recently, the discovery of genes for important plant traits.   

Current research in genetic improvement targets a diverse array of traits in vegetable, grain and bioenergy crops.  Scientific approaches integrate both laboratory and field research, where genomics, bioinformatics, quantitative genetics, and biotechnology are employed to increase the efficiency of selection and breeding of better crop varieties.

Program and Specialization Description

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 to improve production efficiency.

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

For more information about our faculty and their Research Programs, see the following specific websites:

Career Opportunities

Across the nation, there is great concern about the growing need for well-educated plant breeders to meet the demands of industry, academia, and government.

  • Currently, U.S. academic institutions are graduating fewer than two-third the number of the entry-level M.S./Ph.D. plant breeders needed per year to fill the nation’s job vacancies.
  • Several major companies are reporting difficulty in recruiting sufficiently qualified personnel for crop genetics and plant breeding positions at all educational levels.
  • Recently, at least three of the largest seed companies in the U.S. announced plans to double research outputs in the next five years. This will require major expansion in the workforce, further increasing the demand for new M.S./ Ph.D. plant breeders and research assistants at the B.S. level.

Employment opportunities for B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. graduates are excellent. There is a high demand for B.S. graduates as research assistants/associates, M.S. graduates to become research associates and assistant research station managers for commercial plant breeding companies is greater than the supply. Ph.D. graduates with degrees in plant breeding are in very great 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.