Agronomy student works to fill biodiversity gaps in knowledge in Honduras

Andrew Hokanson discovered a love for agriculture while beginning his college journey, but his interest in world hunger started much earlier.  

Hokanson, senior in agronomy, will be headed to Honduras this summer to complete his proof-of-concept project titled “Maize Diversification and Genetic Resource Acquisition in Western Honduras.” Funding for the project will come from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Innovation in Agriculture Young Scholar Award he recently received from the CALS Office for Academic Innovation and the Office for Research and Discovery. 

Andrew Hokanson, senior in agronomy, will collect the first germplasm samples from Ocotepeque, Honduras. 

Hokanson’s project was inspired by his experience working at the USDA North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station on the Germplasm Enhancement of Maize (GEM) Project. This project aims to introduce and incorporate novel and useful exotic maize germplasm to increase biodiversity and strengthen the genetic base of America’s corn crop. 

Maize is one of the most widely produced crops in the world, Hokanson said. Despite Honduras’ close location to the origin of the crop - Mexico - genetic samples from the country are hard to come by in the United States. 

Aside from the opportunity to study the valuable novel traits of Honduran maize, Hokanson is excited his research will take him to his family's home country. His mother was born and raised in Honduras, and he still has family in the area that tell him about their food insecurity issues. 

“I hope my future research will help boost grain production in countries like Honduras, reducing their dependence on imports, decreasing the frequency of spikes in food prices, and promoting global food security,” Hokanson wrote in his research proposal.  

Hokanson plans to re-collect the lost samples from Copán and Lempira and collect the first germplasm samples from Ocotepeque for introduction to the United States. Germplasm is a living genetic resource vital for plant breeding programs. In Hokanson’s project, he will be collecting maize seeds. 

Each of the locations Hokanson will visit are found in Western Honduras, a region of the country about 200 kilometers from the state of Chiapas in Mexico, which agronomists generally agree to be one of the origins of maize. 

In Honduras, Hokanson plans to collaborate with researchers at the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School, an agricultural university located just outside the capital city of Tegucigalpa, who also have an interest in maize germplasm conservation and biodiversity.  

“There hasn't been a lot of research on this subject in Honduras,” Hokanson said. “I was brainstorming with Mark Millard, a plant geneticist and maize curator at the Plant Introduction Station for the USDA. He told me that germplasm from Honduras is a hole in their collection and most of the seeds from Honduras in the collection were collected in the ‘50s and ‘60s.” 

Once this material has been collected, Hokanson will send the germplasm back to the United States for quarantine at a USDA Plant Inspection Station. Working with the Plant Introduction Station in Ames, he will verify the samples meet international collection standards so they can join the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System collection and be available to researchers across the country.  

Hokanson will also characterize each sample to make the germplasm more useful to breeders and researchers. 

 “This is the first research project that I have put together mostly on my own,” Hokanson said. “It does make me a little bit nervous. But I'm also really excited because learning through experience is the best way to learn. That’s our motto, ‘Science with practice.’ My mentor, Dr. Maria Salas-Fernandez, is helping me develop the methods I will use for the project, and she's given me great recommendations already.”