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August 10, 2001

Watching the corn

by Teddi Barron
It's an office like most faculty offices on campus. Wall-to-wall bookcases packed tightly with textbooks, journals and three-ring binders. Mismatched file cabinets squeezed in wherever. Piles of papers.

There's one thing, however, that distinguishes Arnel Hallauer's office from all others: the two ears of corn in his in-box. One is two inches long; the other 15 inches long.

It took nearly 30 years to make those two ears of corn. They are products of research that span Hallauer's Iowa State career as a USDA research geneticist, distinguished professor of agronomy and leader of the university's corn breeding program. At the end of December, Hallauer, who first came to Ames as a graduate student in 1956, will retire.

The two ears of corn in his in-box are the result of a 1950s notion that there was a correlation between ear length and yield.

"We thought, rather than select for yield itself, why not select for longer ears and then get higher yields? In 1962, I started parallel selection programs, one for increased ear length and one for shorter ears," Hallauer explained.

"We found that yield with the longer ear was no different from normal ears and yield for the shorter ear decreased significantly," he said. "With the longer ear length, yield didn't change because the plant made adjustments in other ear traits. The cob diameter increased dramatically, the number of kernel rows decreased and the kernel depth decreased."
In fact, there were changes throughout the plant, he said.

"We've made a lot of differences just selecting for one trait. This demonstrates that single trait selection for high corn yield doesn't work. If you try to select for the extreme of any one trait, it will affect the overall performance," he said.

Generations of corn breeders
If they had made a movie of Hallauer's life, Henry Fonda would have starred: Tall and lanky, modest and unassuming. It's easy to picture the young Hallauer standing along a dusty Kansas farm road, hitching a ride to a college he'd never seen.

He was headed to Kansas State University to join corn breeder Lloyd Tatum. Hallauer had been introduced to the wonders of corn breeding while working in Tatum's experimental plots.

Tatum became his mentor at Kansas State and, after the Korean War, advised Hallauer to accept an offer to go to graduate school at Iowa State so he could study under George Sprague, one of the fathers of modern corn breeding.

Tatum had been Sprague's first graduate student. Hallauer was his last and his eventual successor at Iowa State.

Forty-some years later, Hallauer still has a bit of the "aw shucks" from his Kansas boyhood. He may not own up to it, but few scientists have contributed as much to the world's ability to grow corn. As one of his ISU colleagues so eloquently put it, "His work in quantitative genetics just blows the mind."

Hallauer's impact was recognized in 1989 with one of the highest honors of the scientific world: election to the National Academy of Sciences.

Hallauer was part of the team of USDA and ISU scientists who developed the B73 line of hybrid corn in the 1970s and 1980s. It remains the basis for nearly all the seed-parent lines of corn used in the United States and throughout the temperate areas of the world.

"Every plant is different," Hallauer said. "There's always disappointment. You think some progeny and lines and hybrids are going to be great and they don't quite cut it and you have to go back to the drawing board. Hopefully, you'll find that superior genotype. The odds are probably one in 10,000 or one in 100,000 that you'll find a good line like a B73."

Hallauer also has made a valuable impact through his work adapting tropical germplasm to temperate areas. Since the 1960s, he has crossed corn from Thailand, the Caribbean, Columbia, Mexico and Cuba with U.S. Corn Belt lines. Although tropical corns can't be transferred directly to temperate climates, they can improve American germplasm by adding valuable traits like drought tolerance, and disease- and insect-resistance.

Wherever corn is found
Whether he's working in one of the plots at locations all over Iowa or simply out for a Sunday drive, Hallauer always has an eye on the corn.

"I suppose I'm as comfortable in the cornfield as most people are in their living rooms. You know, a lot of people wouldn't particularly enjoy getting in the cornfield on a hot day in July. But that's where I am from the middle of July until the middle of August. Seven days a week in the cornfield. And it doesn't bother me," he said.

"My wife and children are allergic to some of the pollen and they get to sneezing and wheezing and they want no part of it! They want me to get in the shower right away," Hallauer laughed.

"I've been wandering in cornfields since 1946 when I started detasseling double cross hybrid corns. I can't imagine myself ever doing anything else. ... I suppose if I could've been Stan Musial and played for the St. Louis Cardinals, I'd have liked it. But I've enjoyed being in the cornfields."

Hallauer knows there will be withdrawal pains when he retires from the work he dearly loves. His wife Jan is hoping to take a vacation during summer, something the Hallauers have never done. Or perhaps a winter trip to Hawaii.

"You know, they grow corn there in the winter. I can work in a tour of the nurseries!"

Arnel Hallauer where he loves to be - in the cornfield. Photo by Bob Elbert.

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