US research team to improve sorghum as biofuel source


The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) will lead a $13.5 million (€12 million) multi-institutional research effort to improve sorghum as a sustainable source for biofuel production.

Funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE), the five-year grant takes a comprehensive approach to better understand how plants and microbes interact and to learn which sorghum germplasm grows better with less water and nitrogen.

This research requires a range of expertise, and UNL is teaming with scientists at Danforth Plant Science Center, Washington State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Boyce Thompson Institute, Clemson University, Iowa State University, Colorado State University, and the DOE-Joint Genome Institute.

‘Only by collaborating across disciplines and institutions can we find solutions to complex challenges, especially those at the intersection of our food, water and energy systems,’ Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development, says, commenting on the project.

According to project leader Daniel Schachtman, professor of agronomy and horticulture and director of UNL's Center for Biotechnology, most US biofuels are currently made from corn, but sorghum varieties create more biomass for cellulosic ethanol, which makes it a top contender to replace corn and relieve pressure on an important global food source

‘It's becoming more recognised that we need to move biofuel production to more marginal lands, so they don’t compete with food crops. You also don't want to use a ton of water or fertiliser to keep the system productive,’ Schachtman says.

To improve sorghum's productivity under resource-limited conditions, the team is taking a systems approach and will investigate sorghum genetics as well as the soil microbes that interact with plants.

The research should lead to strategies to increase plant biomass as well as more water use- and nutrient-efficient sorghum crop systems.

Geneticists will search for and study sorghum varieties that use water and nitrogen more efficiently under limited water or nitrogen conditions, while microbiologists will identify and characterise soil microbes that interact with and benefit sorghum by enhancing nutrient uptake, water-use efficiency, and disease protection.

Bringing both approaches together, the team will experiment to find the genetic and microbial combinations with the greatest productivity benefits and create an extensive catalogue and repository of sorghum-related soil microbes and their genetic sequences as a resource for the scientific community.

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