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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2015

Seeking a new sorghum, ’camel’ of crops

The American West is turning hotter and drier and area farmers are feeling the heat.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture estimates statewide crop and livestock losses will total $1.2 billion this year because of the record drought.

Asaph Cousins couples molecular biology techniques with plant physiology and mathematical modeling to understand the processes responsible for plant-environment interactions.
Asaph Cousins couples molecular biology techniques with plant physiology and mathematical modeling to understand the processes responsible for plant-environment interactions.

In the years ahead, a trend of dry summers and low snowpack is expected to pose increasing challenges for Washington farmers, especially those working marginal lands without access to ample irrigation.

Asaph Cousins, associate professor of biology, is part of a $13.5 million research effort looking at ways to address these future challenges for agriculture nationwide.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Cousins and his collaborators at the University of Nebraska and seven other institutions are investigating development of sorghum crops that can grow in marginal soils with scant water and nitrogen yet produce large quantities of quality plant materials for brewing biofuels.

Biofuels are a potentially renewable, carbon-neutral source of energy made from the sugars extracted from fibrous or woody plant materials, such as stems and leaves. They have potential to provide a secure, renewable source of energy that will reduce dependence on fossil fuels and cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

In the United States, most biofuels are made from corn, but sorghum, known as the camel of crops, creates more biomass for cellulosic ethanol than corn and requires one-third less water to grow.

Sorghum is a type of grass that is used for food, animal fodder, the production of alcoholic beverages and brewing biofuels. The plants are cultivated in warm climates worldwide due to their drought and heat tolerance.
Sorghum is a type of grass used for food, animal fodder, producing alcoholic beverages, and brewing biofuels. The drought- and heat-tolerant plants are cultivated in warm climates worldwide.

“We want to figure out which sorghum varieties grow best in dry, marginal conditions. We can use this information to breed for certain traits to enhance the efficiency of water and nitrogen use in sorghum,” Cousins said.

“In places where water is limited or precipitation levels are very low, sorghum could be a viable alternative to more water-intensive crops,” Cousins said. “The efficiency of crops to use water and soil nutrients are going to be important factors determining the effectiveness of biofuels as a renewable, carbon-neutral source of energy,” he said.

“Research to find crops that fit the more arid climate and water scarcity of the future will be essential for effective and efficient agriculture,” said Larry Hufford, director of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) at WSU. “It is critically important for our university and students to be involved in this kind of work.”

During the next five years, research in Cousins’s laboratory will focus on screening diverse varieties of sorghum to identify the genes responsible for desired traits. Large-scale screening and analysis of leaf material will be conducted at the Stable Isotope Core laboratory in SBS.

Cousins’s collaborators at the other institutions will be identifying and characterizing soil microbes that interact with and benefit sorghum.

Together, the two approaches will help in identifying the physiological and plant/microbe interactions that will enhance sorghum resource use efficiency.

Additionally, the sorghum research could help scientists identify important traits for growing other cereal crops in warming climates and lead to improved productivity under dry or otherwise unfavorable conditions.