USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) - Midwest Area

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FLC Region

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1815 North University Street
Peoria, IL 61604
United States

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Description

Agricultural research has a direct impact on our standard of living and the quality of modern life. Our scientists conduct research to develop economically and environmentally sustainable agricultural systems that improve the yield and quality of crops and livestock, improve human health, create crop-based alternatives to petroleum-derived fuels and products, and protect the environment.  If agricultural problems arise such as new pests or diseases of crops or livestock, we have the capacity to respond rapidly to protect the food supply. We in the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), like all Americans, are very concerned about safe and nutritious food.  We develop solutions to reduce food-borne illness and find ways to improve the nutritional value of the food supply.

The Midwest Area of ARS has a long record of achievement in the discovery of new and improved food and non-food products that create new economic opportunities, better nutrition, and "green products for consumers. The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, IL was opened in 1940.  Historically, NCAUR is known as the laboratory that developed the process for large-scale production of Penicillin that saved untold lives during World War II and beyond. A few examples of other products/technologies from the lab include Super Slurper, which is an absorbent material in disposable diapers, bio-based sunscreens, soy ink used in newspaper print, Xantham Gum used as salad dressing thickener, healthy oils that replace trans fats, dextran for medical intravenous applications, and a variety of crop-derived industrial products that reduce our dependence on imported petroleum.

We care deeply about the environment.  There are extensive programs in our area focused on preserving and improving soil, air, and water quality. We are finding new and innovative ways to address animal waste management issues, prevent soil erosion and eliminate pesticides from surface and ground water. We are developing agricultural practices that increase soil carbon retention and reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from farm land.  Our research helps farmers cope with production challenges associated with changes in climate and precipitation patterns. Our Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, Iowa, plays an important role in communicating and deploying improved climate-resilient production practices that maintain crop yields.

We are just as concerned about animals.  We are finding new ways to monitor and promote health and comfort of livestock to ensure that all farm animals are treated in a humane and caring way.  Our animal health programs develop new and effective vaccines and disease prevention alternatives that improve well-being while reducing the use of antibiotics and the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

These examples represent only a few of the research programs in the Midwest Area and ARS that are dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the economic strength of America agriculture while improving the quality of life for each and every citizen.

Midwest Area research enables the development of environmentally and economically sustainable production systems that provide high quality, nutritious and safe food, and other agricultural products that can be converted to “green” fuel and industrial products that reduce our reliance on imported petroleum.  The Midwest Area consists of ARS programs in 9 states -- Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Research is conducted by over 340 scientists and their respective support staff at 12 locations and 2 large Centers.  The ARS locations are: Bowling Green, KY; Lexington, KY; West Lafayette,  IN; Columbus, OH; Wooster, OH; Urbana, IL; Columbia, MO; Ames, IA; East Lansing, MI; St. Paul, MN; Morris, MN; Madison, WI; National Animal Disease Center, Ames, IA; and National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, IL.

 
USDA Annual Reports in Technology Transfer: https://www.ars.usda.gov/office-of-technology-transfer/tt-reports
 

Mission

ARS conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access and dissemination in order to:

  • Ensure high-quality safe food and other agricultural products;
  • Assess the nutritional needs of Americans;
  • Sustain a competitive agricultural economy;
  • Enhance the natural resource base and the environment;
  • Provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.
  • Provide the infrastructure necessary to create and maintain a diversified workplace.

Research in the Midwest Area addresses these goals.

Available Technologies
Displaying 1 - 10 of 28
A Transgene Construct To Improve Fusarium Head Blight Resistance In Wheat and Barley
Anti-Corrosion Coating Utilizing Bacterial Precipated Exopolysaccharides
Culture containing biomass acid hydrolysate and Coniochaeta ligniaria fungus
Dual-functional ion exchange resins from agricultural by-products
Enzymatic Synthesis of a Novel Bioprotectant
Fatty Ammonium Salt Starch Complexes for Numerous Products and Applications
Fungal degradation and bioremediation system for creosote-treated wood
Heavy Metal Remediation Via Modified Bio-Oils
Heavy metal remediation via sulfur-modified bio-oils
Increased Alcohol Tolerance Using the pntAB Gene

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Programs

ARS research is organized into National Programs. These programs serve to bring coordination, communication, and empowerment to approximately 690 research projects carried out by ARS. The National Programs focus on the relevance, impact, and quality of ARS research. Check out the National Programs' website here:

Lab Representatives
Facilities
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FOOD SAFETY TESTING LABORATORY
National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research Pilot Plant
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Success Stories
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When Peter Pan sewed his shadow onto the soles of his feet, he was amazed that the shadow followed him everywhere he went.

Now, 23 years after Agricultural Research Service (ARS) biochemist Bill Doane and coworkers first attached a synthetic polymer to starch molecules, they and others in science and industry are still amazed at the impact this piece of basic research technology has had on U.S. rural development and the broadest range of consumers.

Doane's discovery—called Super Slurper—is capable of absorbing hundreds of times its own weight in water. Based on a grafting technique pioneered by ARS chemist Charles Russell in Peoria, Illinois, Super Slurper "married starch and synthetic polymers," as Doane explained it. Super Slurper has found commercial life over the years in products as varied as seed coatings, wound dressings, automobile fuel filters, and plastic mesh barriers used at construction sites.

Joining Doane on the Super Slurper development team were ARS researchers Mary Ollidene Weaver, Edward B. Bagley, and George F. Fanta. Super Slurper netted the team the Inventor of the Year Award from the Association for the Advancement of Invention and Innovation in 1976, the year they also shared USDA's Distinguished Service Award.

Doane led plant polymer research at ARS's National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) at Peoria for a decade, beginning in 1984.

He retired from the agency in January 1995, and in November was inducted into ARS's Science Hall of Fame—the research agency's highest honor for contributions to agricultural research. Doane is now employed by Bradley University in Peoria, working under an agreement with the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation, which is funding the continuation of one of Doane's research projects started at NCAUR.

During his years with ARS, Doane led research that has yielded the technology behind a host of products. These include thickening agents, absorbents, starch-encapsulated pesticides, starch xanthate for recovering heavy metals from waste water, and natural components for making degradable plastics.

"More than products, Doane's transfer of starch modification technology to commercial use has created and continues to create new markets for millions of pounds of cornstarch," said Richard L. Dunkle, director of ARS's Midwest Area. "A few projects are still ahead of their time, such as degradable plastics, but current research is chipping away at some of the barriers that have slowed down their commercialization."

For much of his career, Doane worked on products and processes that had the potential to be commercialized. Some of them made it, and others didn't.

The one that made it big, Super Slurper, created wider markets for corn farmers and jobs in industry. [See "Super Slurper—Two Decades and Still Growing," Agricultural Research, January 1994, pp. 16-17.]

Born in 1973, its scientific name—saponified starch-graft polyacrylonitrile copolymers—was too cumbersome to catch on with anyone outside the scientific community. The name "Super Slurper" was coined by Dean Mayberry of ARS's Information Office. The name change, coupled with publicity, stimulated thousands of inquiries, and a multimillion-pound market for the polymer was projected. In 1975, the polymer and its inventors received the IR 100 Award from Industrial Research magazine.

ARS granted about 40 nonexclusive licenses to make, use, or sell the absorptive polymer. As soon as these licenses were granted, Doane and other scientists at NCAUR began working actively with the licensees, providing information on the polymer's properties and how to process it.

"The products and processes created by Doane and other Peoria scientists caught the interest of the private sector," said Peter B. Johnsen, NCAUR director. "Even more than the licenses that were granted to companies using our patented technology were the many other patents developed by the companies to extend the technology. Still, the inspiration and basic science for technologies used in absorbent products such as disposable diapers came from this ARS research."

A Change in Legal Climate

Other factors have evolved historically to the chance ARS scientists like Doane can have a role in getting laboratory research into the marketplace—a step that is vital to ensuring a steady flow of new uses for farm products.

Absorbent products such as
disposable diapers are a result of
ARS’s ongoing starch-utilization
research program. 
Photo by Keith Weller/USDA

The legal factors influencing technology transfer 25 years ago were entirely different from those existing today. Although ARS has always encouraged scientists to file patents and companies to license them, the agency was then limited to granting only nonexclusive licenses to businesses.

Before 1980, both government and industry leaders traveled a rocky road from research to product development. Federal researchers were obligated to offer their technology to everyone who asked for it.

"We were unable to grant exclusive licenses for our patented inventions," said Johnsen. "That meant that no company could have the exclusive right to market—and protection while recovering the cost of developing—new-use technologies resulting from government-funded research. As a result, companies that competed with one another had no incentive to make significant financial investments to commercialize ARS technologies."

Even with the disincentive of nonexclusive licensing, Bill Doane firmly believed in product development. He always listened carefully as visitors from agribusiness discussed research and product development. He challenged his research team to come up with creative ideas to solve their problems.

The potential for commercialization of agricultural research began to blossom in 1980, when the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act—an amendment to U.S. patent and trademark laws—gave federal laboratories the authority to grant exclusive patent licenses to private industry.

"ARS quickly exploited this authority, and our technology transfer activity increased," said Johnsen. The Technology Transfer Act of 1986 encouraged the agency to enter into Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) that supported ARS-industry partnerships. A CRADA provides a framework for collaboration between ARS and a partner, and gives the cooperating company the first chance at exclusive licenses to use technology that emerges from the joint effort.

"This legislation formally changed our approach, as the private sector became much more interested in our ability to cooperate," said Johnsen.

Testimonials From Satisfied Customers

In spite of the nonexclusive licenses that were granted on the Super Slurper technology, a few companies were formed solely to produce the polymer. One of these was Super Absorbent Co. of Lumberton, North Carolina.

Super Absorbent founder Ed Kirkland read about Super Slurper in a 1975 issue of Agricultural Research magazine and contacted Doane. In 1978, Kirkland began marketing Ag Sorbent, a polymer mixture that keeps tree roots moist until trees are replanted. His clients include the growers of North Carolina's 30,000 acres of Christmas trees.

Super Absorbent's latest endeavor is a turkey feed containing microbes suspended in a polymer mix. The polymer provides moisture to sustain the microbes, which in turn potentially helps turkeys fend off disease.

"Not all the microbial blends we make use the polymer originated by ARS, but I never would have gotten into the microbe work without the information provided by Doane, Roger Eisenhauer, and George Fanta" at the Peoria facility, according to Kirkland. He reports that gross sales of several of his company's products now exceed $500,000 annually.

Don L. Fisk, president of Uni-Star, Inc., also praises Doane and other scientists at the Peoria research center. Uni-Star was founded in Canton, Illinois, but has relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, for easier access to bulk quantities of cornstarch slurry from Cargill, Inc.

A former farmer, Fisk realized corn had other uses besides feed for hogs. "I probably wouldn't be in this business today if it weren't for the support and guidance I got from Bill Doane and George Fanta. They helped enable us to make large quantities of the starch-acrylic polymer," said Fisk.

In 1992, Uni-Star began large-scale testing with a Minnesota firm, demonstrating that the polymer could be blended with starch and made into a resilient, loose-fill packaging material—the familiar "packing peanuts"—with degradable characteristics. Today's U.S. packaging market could easily use about 254 million pounds of starch annually.

"This success sparked my interest in studying other end-use applications for the Super Slurper polymer," Fisk explained.

When large-scale testing began, Doane and Fanta were regular visitors at Uni-Star's facility 30 miles west of Peoria, meeting with Fisk and his employees to solve the problems of polymer processing and marketing. After observing Fisk's preparation and processing steps firsthand, the scientists suggested ways to improve the work and quality of the end products.

Uni-Star now produces 20,000 pounds of starch graft copolymers per week and sells them for loose fill. Fisk's goal is to produce a half million pounds per month—with potential monthly gross sales of $350,000.

Since June 1995, Fisk has been working under a letter of intent with Rapac, an Oakland, Tennessee, company that produces 60 percent of the polystyrene loose fill in the United States. According to Fisk, "Because of Bill Doane's and George Fanta's support and technical advice, I was able to file two U.S. patents on technology and improvements on the original work that came out of NCAUR. I'd have given up long ago without their help and expertise. I'm still in contact with George, who is helping me with plastic film development."

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

When Doane and his research team began working on degradable plastics and products based on controlled release technology, such concepts were ahead of their time. But as market demands and concern for the environment increase and production costs decline, more of these products are finding their way into the marketplace.

"People don't realize that it isn't easy to develop a product or change an industrial process. Every day is a slugfest; there's always Murphy's Law to contend with in the real world," said Steve Ayers, vice president of sales marketing for Central Illinois Manufacturing Company in Bement.

Ayers' parents founded Central Illinois Manufacturing in 1956. During the mid-1980s, the Ayers family manufactured Hydrosorb, a Super Slurper-based fuel filter media for service station gas pumps. Although they have since switched to a synthetic polymer, "ARS research findings and the invaluable support Doane and Fanta gave us helped make us a leader in the filtration field," according to Ayers.

Another fan of Super Slurper is Ray Mullikin, technical sales representative for Grain Processing Corporation of Muscatine, Iowa, which was among the first companies to license the technology.

Grain Processing Corporation's superabsorbent, called WaterLock, is sold to cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers throughout the world. WaterLock superabsorbent polymer is a component of microbial biological control agents—as well as an ingredient in turf mats.

Getting research off the federal shelf can create new job opportunities. Just ask Richard R. Tryon, president of Agri-Tech Industries in Champaign, Illinois.

After 31 years as a printer and publisher, Tryon decided to try his hand at making degradable, starch-based plastics for American industry. His inspiration came from ARS chemist Felix Otey who, under Bill Doane's leadership, discovered that blending cornstarch, an acrylic acid polymer, and polyethylene would form a degradable plastic film. The invention was patented by USDA and licensed by Agri-Tech in 1986.

"Bill Doane supported and encouraged us when we were first getting started. He gave freely of his time and resources," said Tryon. It's just as easy to find fellow scientists at the Peoria research center who admire Bill Doane. He is known as the kind of research leader who "taught us to care and focus on what we were doing," said Rodney Bothast, who is now leader of fermentation research at NCAUR. "Bill encouraged us to follow through with our work. And he always used a great deal of common sense in his approach to people and to research."

Doane is also remembered for letting fellow scientists enjoy the limelight, according to ARS coworker Baruch Shasha, a friend and colleague since the two attended graduate school together at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

"He genuinely enjoys seeing others succeed and win, even if it means a smaller role for him," said Shasha, who joined the NCAUR Plant Polymer Research Unit in 1963. Doane's winnings are the fruits of his agricultural research—a benefit to American consumers, as well as to industry, said area director Dunkle.

"While the products that resulted from his research merit our admiration, so too do the larger goals he achieved: a cleaner environment, more jobs for people, and new markets for hundreds of millions of pounds of cornstarch," said Linda Cooke, ARS.

This success story was originally published in the May 1996 issue of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Magazine; click here to view. 

At the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, ARS chemist George Fanta (left) and Don Fisk, president of Uni-Star, Inc., examine foam packing material extruded from biodegradable cornstarch. (Photo credit: Keith Weller/USDA)

Science can do more than improve people’s lives; sometimes it can save them.

Consider the contributions of the late Allene Rosalind Jeanes, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist at what is now the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. Her efforts are particularly worth celebrating this Veteran’s Day.

Jeanes studied polymers (large molecules composed of many repeated subunits) found in corn, wheat and wood. She spent long hours investigating how bacteria could produce polymers in huge fermentation vats. Eventually, she found a way to mass produce dextran, a type of polymer, so that it could be used as a blood volume “expander” to sustain accident and trauma victims who have lost massive amounts of blood and need to get to a hospital for a transfusion.

The technology is credited with saving the lives of numerous battle-wounded Americans in Korea and Vietnam, and is one reason why Jeanes, who died in 1995, is still remembered by some of her former colleagues in Peoria.

“She was a very quiet and very distinguished person, and she happened to be a brilliant scientist who saw the potential for what turned out to be critical work. It is an interesting story,” said ARS chemist George Inglett, who was chief of the research laboratory in Peoria where Jeanes spent her later years.

The annals of history are replete with important discoveries sparked by serendipity, and this present story is no different. This particular serendipity involved—of all things—a batch of bad root beer. Jeanes had been interested in dextran for years, but it was hard to find in quantities large enough for meaningful research. That changed when a soft drink company in Peoria sent Jeanes a sample of their product wanting to know why it had become thick and gooey. The root beer turned out to have been contaminated with a type of bacteria that produced dextran. The discovery of the dextran-producing microbes meant Jeanes could produce all the dextran she needed for research.

Meanwhile, researchers in Sweden and England had been investigating the use of dextran as a potential blood volume expander. While it can’t carry oxygen to vital organs as healthy blood cells do, it might, thought the researchers, temporarily help accident and trauma victims suffering massive blood loss by restoring lost electrolytes and maintaining blood pressure.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Jeanes and her colleagues were able to make a dextran-based blood volume expander that the Army put to use. The blood volume expander had many advantages: it could be kept longer than blood plasma without refrigeration, it could be sterilized to prevent infections, it was one-third the cost of plasma and it remained viable in the blood long enough to keep patients alive until they could get a transfusion. It was approved for U.S. military use in 1950 and for civilian use in 1953.

Research would later show that dextran wasn’t perfect and the U.S. Government no longer uses dextran as a blood expander. But at a critical juncture in history—and absent viable alternatives—Jeanes’s discovery saved many lives.

Jeanes and her colleagues also discovered xanthan gum, a polysaccharide (or polymeric carbohydrate molecule) synthesized by bacteria that is used to thicken and improve the consistency of ice cream, salad dressings, lotions, cough syrups and many other products. It is also used in the oil and gas industry to extract fossil fuels from the earth.

Jeanes was awarded 10 patents, produced 60 publications and became the first woman to win the USDA’s Distinguished Service Award in 1953. In 1999, she was posthumously inducted into the ARS Science Hall of Fame. She was also awarded the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society in 1956 and the Women’s Service Award from the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1962.

We should all be thankful for the work done by Jeanes and other scientists like her. They’ve not only helped save lives, but they have also made our lives better with new products and technologies.

New Healthy Functional Foods from Oats
Studies revealed that the soft-solid characteristics of various oat carbohydrates (beta-glucan)provided creamier, less runny properties that are valuable for developing new functional foods such as yogurt, instant puddings, custard, batter, smoothies, and ice cream. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Peoria, Illinois, developed the oat concentrates, which appear to have great potential for health-concerned consumers.

An industrial partner, Z Trim Holdings, Inc., has licensed this ARS-patented digestible,functional food from oats for the production of Calorie-Trim and Nutrim. Z-Trim is licensing this product for expanded markets, including the  USDA’s school lunch program