No boredom for sorghum – Sorghum reaches stardom status with huge $16 million grant

October 8, 2017 |

Sweet sorghum stardom! In possibly one of the largest government grants given to anyone for research on a single feedstock, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is receiving a 5-year $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for research on the model grass green foxtail (Setaria viridis), to speed up the development of energy sorghum varieties for production under not so great environments.

But that’s not the only exciting news – NexSteppe shared their vision and plans for sorghum stardom with the Digest over the weekend.

Sorghum stardom scoop

So why is sorghum so hip and happening right now? The Danforth Center helps us count the ways:

  1. Sorghum is a member of the grass family and is grown worldwide.
  2. Sorghum is very resilient to drought and heat stress.
  3. Natural genetic diversity in sorghum makes it a promising system for identifying stress-resistance mechanisms in grasses that may have been lost during the domestication of related cereal crops.
  4. It is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water, making it an ideal crop to target for improvement.

This explains why earlier this summer, the Danforth Center told Sorghum Growers that their lab is moving its focus almost entirely to sorghum and turning the attention of approximately 23 other research scientists to the crop, as well as a full-time sorghum breeder.

“There is no master plan,” one of the lead scientists, Todd Mockler, Ph.D. told Sorghum Grower, “but I am steering the Titanic in the direction to do all sorghum, all the time, piece-by-piece.” Unlike the Titanic, they don’t plan to sink the ship but instead undertake a new massive effort to make sorghum the bioenergy crop of the future.

The Danforth Project

The future of sinewy sorghum is looking pretty sweet right now with this huge research grant that could change the future of sorghum as a bioenergy crop. And as one of the world’s largest independent plant science non-profit institutes, Danforth is pushing that needle ever more forward for sorghum.

Building on Danforth’s earlier research using the model grass, green foxtail (Setaria viridis), this project will identify new genes and pathways that contribute to photosynthesis and enhanced water use efficiency. The team will then deploy these genes using tools of the emerging field of synthetic biology to accelerate development of elite energy sorghum varieties for production under marginal environments.

“Understanding the network of genes involved in photosynthesis and drought tolerance will provide targets for plant breeders and genetic engineers to re-design sorghum specifically as a high value bioenergy feedstock to be grown on marginal soils and thus not compete with food crops,” said lead principal investigator, Thomas Brutnell, Ph.D., director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Center in their press release.

This project aims to deliver stress-tolerant sorghum lines, addressing DOE’s mission in the generation of renewable energy resources. Danforth’s press release states that the development of a low input, environmentally safe and highly productive sorghum germplasm will help establish a lignocellulosic energy economy that can provide jobs to rural communities, ensure energy security and benefit the environment.

The project includes a multi-disciplinary team with expertise ranging from plant physiology, genetics, molecular biology, informatics, computational biology and genetic engineering from scientists at Washington State University, Carnegie Institution for Science, University of Rhode Island, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota and the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Sorghum is an attractive bioenergy feedstock supported by well-developed breeding and seed industry,” said co-principal Investigator on the grant, Todd Mockler, Ph.D., Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator at the Danforth Center. “This project will leverage recent investments by DOE to further accelerate sorghum feedstock enhancements, develop new gene editing and transformation technologies and conduct a whole genome association study to identify genes to improve sorghum productivity.”

NexSteppe offers next steps too for sorghum’s future

NexSteppe’s President and CEO, Anna Rath, told the Digest over the weekend that they have big plans for sorghum as well.

“Sorghum has many of the same compelling attributes that have made corn such a successful agricultural crop – relatively straightforward genetics, a relatively short breeding and product development cycle, and hybrid genetics that allow for protection of intellectual property. In the world of bioeconomy applications, though, where we are also concerned with water use, input requirements, and the ability to grow in harsher environments or on more marginal land, sorghum is clearly superior. As a result, we believe sorghum has a major role to play in the increasing needs of the bioeconomy for scalable, reliable, sustainable, consistent and cost-effective feedstocks.”

Sounds like a great vision, but what are they actually doing to move sorghum to the spotlight?

Rath told the Digest that they had their “first large scale commercial plantings of Palo Alto in China this year aimed at the combination of land remediation and production of a feedstock for biomass power. Those fields will be harvested in the coming weeks and the biomass will be burned for production of biomass power.” She also told the Digest that sales are going well of their Metano Alto in Germany and Italy this year for bioga as well as sales of Palo Alto for biomass power in Italy.

As if that’s not enough excitement, Rath also told the Digest that “In South America, in addition to continuing sales of Palo Alto for biomass power in Brazil, we expect to see sales of Malibu for production of ethanol and Metano Alto for biogas and expect to see our first sales in Paraguay and Argentina.”

Check out the Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide to NexSteppe.

Sweet sorghum success

There are too many other recent sorghum success stories to name, but here are a few more noteworthy ones. As reported in the Digest in April, Chromatin and Zaad Holdings entered into an alliance to produce and distribute planting seed for grain and forage sorghum throughout the African continent. In Africa, sorghum is used in the food and beverage industry and as animal feed. The crop conserves water resources, providing food security in areas where fresh water is limiting. Historically, however, sorghum yields were not so great from saved seeds but higher yielding hybrid versions can produce up to five times as much yield. This can help the increasing demand for African sorghum and new markets like the dairy industry which relies on sorghum to improve milk production yields.

Non-sorghum companies are also watching and wondering if they should get in on the sorghum scoop. In August, the Digest reported that in Hawaii, as part of Alexander & Baldwin’s diversification into biofuels from its sugarcane past, the company began growing corn and sorghum a few months ago for feedstock that will produce biogas and in turn power the Kahului wastewater treatment facility. If the trial proves successful, the crops could be grown on as much as 500 acres. The crops will be rotated with legumes for nitrogen fixing and cover crops as well. Pongamia isn’t envisioned as a feedstock for the biogas facility despite starting a 250 acre trial that could expand to 2,000 acres over time because the company hasn’t yet decided on how the seeds will be processed.

Bottom Line

With a giant $16 million grant to Danforth to study nothing but sorghum, we can’t help but think great things will be coming from the research. And with companies actually producing, selling, and using sorghum, like NexSteppe and Chromatin, we think sorghum is worthy of stardom status for bioenergy crops. By utilizing research, technology, breeding, and a vision for the future, we see organizations and companies moving the needle on sorghum very quickly and very soon.

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