The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, one of the world's largest independent plant science institutes, announced that it received a three-year, $6.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to expand and accelerate the development and deployment of advanced sorghum phenotyping and breeding technologies in support of improved varieties for smallholder farmers.
“The Gates Foundation recognizes that most smallholder farmers rely on small plots of land for food and income. This grant will help increase the productivity of a crop that can, in a sustainable and effective way, reduce hunger and poverty and make communities economically stronger and more stable over the long term,” Danforth Center president Dr. James Carrington said.
The funding broadens the impact of the TERRA-REF program launched in June 2015 by the Danforth Center with support from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). TERRA-REF aims to optimize breeding strategies for improving the yield and stress tolerance of sorghum (sorghum bicolor), which is a leading bioenergy feedstock crop in the U.S. but also a critical source of nutrition for millions of people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Sorghum Genomics Toolbox — led by the Danforth Center with partners at ICRISAT (India), CERAAS-ISRA (Senegal), CIRAD (France), EIAR (Ethiopia), HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Kansas State University, University of Arizona, George Washington University and NRGene (Israel) — is employing cutting-edge technologies to sequence and analyze grain sorghum genomes, capture tens of millions of phenotypic observations over the course of a growing season and accelerate breeding efforts by connecting phenotypes to genotypes in the field.
“Initially, we launched the TERRA-REF project to gain a greater understanding of the phenotypic and genomic variation of bioenergy sorghum and to lay the foundation for genomics-enabled breeding strategies for U.S. sorghum bioenergy feedstock production, but the same strategies are directly extendable to food security crops,” said Dr. Todd Mockler, the Geraldine & Robert Virgil distinguished investigator with the Danforth Center. “I'm grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for recognizing the need to extend the application of advanced genomics and phenomics technologies to food crops that will benefit millions of people living in the developing world.”
Sorghum is a member of the grass family and is grown worldwide. It is of interest not only because it is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa but because grain sorghum yields have been flat or declining due to the lack of sufficient investment in the development of new improved varieties.
"Exploring the broad genomic diversity of grain sorghum is a fundamental step toward accelerated breeding of more productive varieties,” said Gil Ronen, chief executive officer of NRGene, a genomic big data company. “We are honored NRGene's tools were selected to advance breeding of staple crops such as grain sorghum."
Sorghum is very resilient to drought and heat stress. 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. 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 to meet the predicted doubling of global food demand by 2050.
Tim Lust, CEO of the National Sorghum Producers, said the organization “is excited to see the additional investment into sorghum research and breeding, which will help farmers around the world as they continue to deal with the challenges of advancing sorghum genetics to address climate variability and the need for increased food sustainability.”
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Its research, education and outreach aim to have an impact at the nexus of food security and the environment. The center's work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, DOE, National Science Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.