Research Milestones and Expertise

In 2017, the MAES was asked to provide a list of major research discoveries, areas of historical research expertise and top cultivars related to the research land-grant mission of the University of Minnesota for an upcoming book by former USDA Chief Scientist Gale Buchanan.

The list below, while not exhaustive, represents a compiling of major historical accomplishments collected by MAES staff with the help of countless University faculty and Departmental staff. 

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Cold Hardy Fruit Breeding

This program began nearly a century ago and is one of the oldest continuous fruit breeding programs in North America. With support from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, plant breeders faced the challenge of the rigorous Minnesota climate, from subzero winters to hot and dry summers. In the 1900s, parent apple trees were collected from the wild as well as from Midwest and New England growers. Early researchers produced thousands of fruit seedlings from those parent trees. The winter of 1917-18 set records for extreme cold; however, some progeny of ‘Malinda’ — a New England apple — survived and were a boon to Minnesota's breeding program. ‘Haralson,’ ‘Folwell’ and ‘Minnehaha’ were siblings released in the early 1920s, and some of "Malinda's" genes live on in ‘Honeygold’ and even ‘Honeycrisp.' Today, it is estimated that four out of every five apples grown in Minnesota were developed at the University. In total, 27 apple cultivars have been released along with cold-hardy raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and pears. In the 1970s, a grape breeding program was added and led to the introduction of a line of cold-hardy wine grapes that have been widely adopted, and led to the birth of a wine-making industry in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S.  

Diseases of Wheat and Other Grains

In 1918, plant pathologist E.C. Stakman was appointed to head a barberry eradication program to combat wheat stem rust. The goal of this program was to reduce the threat of rust epidemics by eliminating the alternate host. Stakman discovered that the stem rust fungus has 6 physiological races and plant breeders at the University of Minnesota began to develop rust­-resistant cereals soon after. Stakman inspired University of Minnesota student Norman Borlaug, who later launched the Green Revolution by enhancing crop productivity and ultimately saving nearly a billion people from starvation in the 1960s and 70s. Today the university is home to a thriving cereal disease research community, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cereal Disease Lab. The team of pathologists and breeders monitors rust populations and uses these findings to develop cereals resistant to prevalent races, including races like UG99 that threaten wheat production in Africa and the Middle East. 

Breakthroughs in Animal Husbandry and Productivity

University of Minnesota researchers have contributed to worldwide improvement of livestock and poultry through more than 80 years of work in reproductive technologies. It began with their development in the 1930s of artificial insemination (AI), which allowed the breeding of thousands of females using the semen of a single male with outstanding genetic traits. The technique was first used on dairy cattle but eventually was expanded for use in the swine, sheep and poultry industries. In the 1930s and ‘40s researchers also focused on productively improvements amongst poultry, including T. Canfield’s work related to sexing day-old chicks, poults, and goslings and R. Shoffner’s work on chicken genetics and breeding for preferred traits. More recently, U of M developed reproductive technologies have allowed for cryopreservation of sperm, embryo transfers and in-vitro fertilization. Today, University of Minnesota scientists are working with genomic techniques to find ways to use animals as models in investigating human diseases such as diabetes and cystic fibrosis along with continuing to uncover ways for Minnesota livestock and poultry industries to optimize their output. 

Leaders in Agricultural Economics and Trade Policy

In the second half of the 20th century, economic researchers at the University were leaders in developing new theories, models and policies related to the economics of agriculture and the role of trade. Willard Cochrane was instrumental in uncovering the role price instability plays in agricultural policy and trade. Throughout his career he advised presidents and was a leading architect of farm policy in the U.S. Vernon Ruttan’s research focused primarily of economic develop and he is possibly best known for the induced innovation theory. His work also related to the value of foreign aid how what you send can in fact help the recipient country increase its own production or access to food rather than simply displacing their domestic production with surplus food aid resources. Notably, Ruttan also studied the value of investing in agricultural research, work that continues to this day with a new batch of economic researchers that are exploring the economics of agriculture throughout the world. 

Environmental Advances in Agriculture

In 1948 a research effort was initiated to evaluate all crops with potential for agricultural production in Minnesota – among those evaluated were crops that could have an environmental benefit to the state. In 1954, U of M trials of rye found that it acts as a bio-control of weeds in row crops. Today, rye is still considered one of the best cover crop options and researchers continue to study it and other cover crops. By the 1980s, Pierre Robert was a leader in the development of precision agriculture, influencing other researchers and private industry. By the 1990s his team developed the Soil Survey Information System, one of the first, rudimentary GIS programs. Today key programs, including the Forever Green Project, continue this legacy of research and work to uncover ways to improve Minnesota’s agricultural future through diversification and new market opportunities while, at the same time, protecting the our valuable soils and environment for future generations.

Advances in Animal Feed and Nutrition

The University’s work related to animal feed and nutrition dates back to the early days of station. In 1900, Theophilus Haecker wrote two Station Bulletins (#67 “Feeding Standards for Dairy Cattle and #130 “Feeding Dairy Cows). These represented the first such research completed and published in the U.S. and led to a revolution in dairy production. Beginning in the 1960s, a team of researchers started looking at the quality of forage crops and what made them more or less palatable for grazing animals. Gordon C. Marten’s work related to near-infrared spectroscopy with forage crops remains highly cited today, along with his work on how to standardize the in vitro fermentation process. By the late 1990s, industry concerns turned to DDGS and University researchers were leaders in conducting research that demonstrated the excellent feeding value of DDGS for swine diets. 

Vaccines and Advances to Help Stop the Spread of Animal Diseases

University researchers in veterinary medicine and animal science have long been leaders in helping to uncover the causes and cures of animal diseases. In the 1920s, an estimated 15 percent of Minnesota’s dairy cows were infected with brucellosis – a disease that caused abortions, breeding difficulties, and sterility in swine and cattle. F.B. Fitch was a leader in optimizing and standardizing the techniques of testing laboratories, which helped to correctly diagnosis and ultimately eliminate brucellosis from the state. From the 1930s through the 1980s Ben Pomeroy was a leader in diagnostic research related to turkeys. In 1956, his research led to Minnesota being the first state to receive pullorum-typhoid clean status. By the 1980s, an unknown swine disease appeared in the U.S. and spread worldwide. University researcher James Collins named the virus “porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome” (PPRS) and Mike Murtaugh sequenced the virus. Quick diagnostic tests quickly followed and in 1994, Collins developed a vaccine for PRRS that has been marketed and used worldwide. Today, researchers are using their expertise on current threats including Avian Influenza and how to stop the spread of aerial viruses. 

Soil Microbes and Microbiology

Microbiology evolved through discoveries in fields of medicine and agriculture. In 1924, The Department of Microbiology was established at the University’s Medical School, and the department shared a faculty member with the then Division of Soils. By the 1950s, concerns from the Department of Health led to microbiologist Edwin Schmidt arriving at the U. Schmidt uncovered a soil fungus capable of forming nitrate as a growth product. This discovery led to a new field of study of heterotrophic and autotrophic nitrification, which continues to be an important in global research related to fertility management, water quality, pollution abatement, crop yield gains, and sustainable agriculture. By the 1970s, researchers were working with B. japonicum and exploring how chemical signals between bacteria and host plants interact and by the 1990s were using DNA fingerprinting methods to help trace pollution sources. Today, University researchers are exploring environmental microbiology using DNA sequencing and other technologies to uncover how microbes in our soils can enhance plant growth and transform nutrients, biodegrade toxic chemicals, and how microorganisms impact human health. 

Advances in Food Safety and Flavor Technology

U of M researchers have been leaders in food safety research related to intentional contamination and homeland security. Their work has focused on keeping America’s food safe from farm-to-table.  In the 1970s, researchers were helping to establish minimal processing temperatures for packaged meat products that are still used by the USDA. By the 1980s, researchers’ attention shifted to understanding the chemical kinetics behind food deterioration and helping to establish proper shelf life recommendations. Uncovering the secrets of flavor also became an important area of study at the University in the 1980s. Flavor researchers worked to determine the various components of flavor and, significantly, what causes off-flavor and how their research can be used by the food industry to help meet consumer demand for healthier, flavorful foods. Today researchers at the University are continuing to discover ways to assist the food companies and government regulatory agencies in the development of technologies to assist the industry, protect consumers’ health and develop foods people want to eat. 

Applied Forest Ecology, Measurements and Modeling

University of Minnesota researchers have been leaders in forest tree improvement via genetics research and in modeling forest growth and change. Experimental trials of native and other trees species performance were established at the University's Cloquet Forestry Center beginning in the early 1900s.  Subsequently this led to selections that showed increased growth and form for commercially important conifers. With those gains, 45 seed orchards have been established that today are bringing first and second generation gains for forest plantings across the Upper Great Lakes Region. Related observations of forest growth and change from planted and natural forests across diverse land ownerships in the region have also enabled the development of forest growth and change models. These models are now regularly used to make projections of forest conditions decades ahead under existing to enhanced management scenarios--and for individual stands, entire forests and statewide. The same models are used by U of M researchers to estimate the potential effects of changing environmental conditions on the health and sustainability of forest ecosystems.

Invasive Species Management

University researchers have long been interested the fight against invasive species. In the 1930s, researchers studied the importance of controlling barberry in the fight against white pine blister rust. By the 1960s, Dutch Elm disease had entered the state but research funding and legislative policies largely came too late to save Minnesota’s nearly 140 million American elms. David French tracked the progress and reaction to the disease so, in the future; Minnesota would have a more diverse selection of trees and be more prepared for other invasive insects. At the turn of the century, Peter Sorensen uncovered petromyzonamine disulfate, which helped with the management of sea lamprey in the Great Lakes. Sorenson’s work on managing invasive common and Asian carp continues to provide insights to water resource managers throughout the country. Today, work on aquatic and terrestrial invasive species is largely conducted at two specially funded centers at the University (MAISRC and MITPPC) where work continues on protecting Minnesota’s waters and land from invasive plants, insects and animals.