CARBONDALE, Ill. — David Lightfoot’s professional perspective focuses on the tiny genetic world of a soybean.
As a plant geneticist, Lightfoot’s research and teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale have been largely with soybeans and identifying and mapping its complete gene set — its genome.
With 173 scientific papers to his name, Lightfoot’s work has been awarded millions of grant dollars from such groups as the Illinois Soybean Association, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, United Soybean Board and other entities.
At SIU, he is a professor for biotechnology and genomics and head of the Genomic Science Facility. He’s also an Illinois Humanities Commission Road Scholar and has won Illinois Soybean Researcher of the Year twice.
Besides his research success, it’s in the classroom where Lightfoot, 56, is especially enjoying his role as a teacher.
Genetics is such a wide and varied field. How does your career relate to agriculture?
As a 19-year-old kid, my prof stopped the boring lecture and asked, “Do you want to help 250 million kids just survive or help 250,000 rich, old people live six months more and take their money? So ag or med?”
How did you decide to pursue a career in genetics?
Agriculture can help a lot of people. People genetics is interesting, too. I thought combining the two might be good.
Why soybean research?
Beans are healthy. From the U.S. to Africa, we need more tofu and soymilk.
What are you working on now?
Coal as fertilizer. Soybean improvement. More nutritive corn. Old mine remediation.
What is your greatest achievement and why?
Working with students. They change the world.
What do you wish the agriculture community better understood about genetics?
The implications of genetically modified organisms are smaller than the non-GMO releases we make. Even the National Academy of Science agrees.
Are there any high-tech tools you use in the lab that you marvel over?
Every day. But, this year, the DNA sequencer that cost $1,000 and plugs into the USB port of my laptop computer is impressive.
If unlimited funds were available to your research and teaching, what would you do?
Hire more students — Illinois has a lot of great minds.
What is agriculture’s biggest challenge?
We do have to feed 12 billion people by 2050. They all want more protein. So soybeans or meat? That’s a difficult issue. Also, Africa. Can the Chinese change their land use? Because we (in the USA) cannot.
Any genetics humor you’d like to share?
So I had myself genotyped for $150. I did not expect to be 91 percent British, being tall, blond and blue eyed. Apparently, my ancestors were very faithful carrot farmers, unlike many modern politicians.