Smart Agriculture: Breeding Sorghum Plants Which Store More Atmospheric Carbon

ON 09/15/2021 AT 04:33 AM

Sorghum is already attracting attention as an important food of the future because of its high nutritional content, plus resilience in the presence of high heat and increased drought. A new research program is about to add to its value by creating sorghum varieties which more effectively capture and store atmospheric carbon during the growth process.

Sorghum grain

Sorghum fields like these, especially if bred to optimized carbon absorption from the atmosphere, could soon become one of the most important superfoods of our future much hotter and drier planet. Photo: You can use the following text: Image by Schwoaze from Pixabay

The project is a collaboration between the Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI) and a team led by Nadia Shakoor, Ph.D. of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sorghum is one of the five most successful commercial cereal crops in the world. In 2021, U.S. farmers alone planted some seven million acres of sorghum, as a gluten-free grain alternative for people and livestock feed, and as a source of biofuel and sweet sorghum syrup.

As the climate crisis has accelerated, it has been researched in university research programs such as the University de los Baños in Laguna, just outside of the Philippine capital of Manila, where it is being actively considered as a climate-resilient alternative to the conventional white rice diet of the Filipino people in the future.

For similar reasons, it has also become a focus for the Plant Science Center’s Dr. Shakoor, who happens to be one of the world’s leading experts in sorghum genetics.

There she has developed customized ultra-sensitive sensors which can simultaneously monitor the micro-changes in the environment plants grow within, and in precisely how the plants respond to those environmental changes in real time.

As part of the current project, Dr. Shakoor will use these sensors to help identify which varieties of sorghum have the proper genetic traits needed for optimized carbon capture. Those traits are already known to include the ability to develop large, deep root systems which store and move carbon into the surrounding soil.

Based on what Dr. Shakoor discovers, the work then hands off to Todd Michael, a research professor at the Salk Institute’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory. Michael and his team will analyze the genetic material in the plants the team at the Plant Science Center has identified as high probability carbon capture prospects.

Then together Michael and Dr. Shakoor will work together to determine which are the most promising sorghum lines to select and further breed.

“Our research community has the opportunity to use cutting-edge science and innovation to help change the course of climate change,” says Shakoor. “Sorghum is an incredible plant that holds great promise as a carbon-sequestering crop. We believe sorghum can be optimized to potentially capture and store more carbon and, combined with its inherent traits such as drought tolerance, make a positive contribution to both food security resiliency and the mitigation of negative climate impact. I greatly appreciate the support of HPI to undertake this research.” 

This important research effort will run for five years initially. During that time, the research teams hope to run through many cycles of plant breeding followed by genetic analysis and then back to new breeding again, all with the goal of developing a breed of sorghum which is more efficient at capturing carbon.

The Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plant Initiatives group and Dr. Shakoor’s team at the Daniel Danforth Plant Science Institute will be guided in their efforts via an external advisory board and joint steering committee. The board and steering committee will also be joined by experts in every aspect of the sorghum value chain in carrying out the project.

Funding for the joint effort is supported by a $30 million donation from the Bezos Earth Fund and a $2 million donation from Sempra Energy.