Sorghum is not a glamour plant. Most people only know it as the base of sorghum molasses. But the humble cereal crop is also an important component as fodder in the United States and a food crop in developing nations. Kansas is the top U.S. producer of sorghum, accounting for nearly half of the country’s annual yield. Similarly, the Unites States is the world’s largest grain sorghum exporter and ranks second in production. Now, more and more, sorghum is getting attention as a biofuel crop.
In early August, four faculty members from Kansas State University’s College of Agriculture and College of Engineering received an $800,000 grant from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy under the Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy research program. The grant will fund a three-year study that will provide the genetic groundwork necessary for potentially turning sorghum into biofuel by increasing the plant’s biomass yield.
The Kansas State team hopes to build a huge genetic database on a strain of sorghum, known as biomass sorghum, that is mostly stalk and leaves and contains little grain. According to the researchers, there is very little data about this strain’s genetics and how to improve the crop. While many grain crops have had their genetics and production refined and documented for decades, the K-State sorghum team essentially has to start from scratch.
The ultimate aim of the study is to change the plant’s genetics in order to breed plants that contain more biomass. The researchers also hope to optimize the crop and breed plants that are more drought tolerant and can thrive in poor soil conditions.