Researchers at East Lansing’s MSU Awarded $2.7M to Study Sorghum for Use as a Biofuel

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are part of a team that has been awarded a $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy grant for a new study on sorghum. The goal is to identify and better understand genes that lead to improved growth and yield in various environments.
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sorghum plants
MSU researchers are participating in a $2.7 million project to study how to better grow sorghum. The cereal crop could be used as biofuel. // Stock photo

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are part of a team that has been awarded a $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy grant for a new study on sorghum. The goal is to identify and better understand genes that lead to improved growth and yield in various environments.

Sorghum is the third most abundant cereal crop in the U.S. and has potential to be a biofuel.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is leading the project. Other schools involved include Iowa State University, Purdue University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The labs of two co-principal investigators at MSU are receiving $685,000 of the grant: Addie Thompson, assistant professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences; and Erin Bunting, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences and the director of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems Research and Outreach Services.

Much of the genome of sorghum and other cereal crops are not known. To determine the optimal environmental conditions for sorghum, scientists must first understand genes influencing plant health and yield.

Field data collected using technologies such as remote sensing also will be collected across Nebraska and Michigan for use in crop models. Bringing genome and field work data – two different sciences – together is an attempt to understand how many factors affect plant health and performance.

“It’s very difficult to predict yield or other end-of-season traits because they are the culmination of so many different smaller traits and weather events and their interaction throughout the season,” says Thompson. “For example, leaf area of the plant, how effectively it uses water, or how much sunlight it receives at different stages of growth will all impact yield.”

Researchers then will use machine learning to detect patterns in enormous amounts of data and determine which data is most relevant. Scientists hope the machine learning will help uncover the genes the most likely responsible for defining sorghum characteristics, saving them the effort of randomly choosing genes that may be inconsequential.

Once the genes are identified, scientists will use gene editing technology to validate their functions.

“Because the technologies are so new, this type of approach was not possible until very recently,” says Thompson.

The grant is part of a larger program through the Department of Energy, which has committed $64 million to funding 25 university projects on the genomics of plants and microbes for bioenergy and byproducts.

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