MSU researchers part of $2.7 million project funded by Department of Energy

Two MSU researchers are part of a $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy project studying sorghum, which is of interest as a biofuel. Researchers want to pinpoint genes that contribute to plant health and yield.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University (MSU) researchers are part of a multi-university team that has been awarded a $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant for a new study on sorghum that melds differing sciences — from genomics to crop modeling.

The aim is to identify and better understand genes that lead to improved growth and yield in various environments. Interest in sorghum, the third most abundant cereal crop in the United States, is rising due to its potential as a biofuel.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is leading the project, which also involves Iowa State University, Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At MSU, the labs of two co-principal investigators are receiving $685,000 of the grant: Addie Thompson, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences; and Erin Bunting, an assistant professor in the MSU 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, as with many other cereal crops, remains a mystery. To determine the optimal environmental conditions for sorghum, scientists must first better understand the genes influencing plant health and, ultimately, yield.

Along with the genomics work, field data — using technologies such as remote sensing — will be collected across Nebraska and Michigan for use in crop models. Bringing these vastly different sciences together is an attempt to understand how an abundance of 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,” Thompson said. “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 will then use machine learning, a technique in which they will feed computers massive amounts of data about the known sorghum genome along with the data they collect. The computers detect patterns and are able to pinpoint which data are most relevant.

For this project, the scientists hope that machine learning will help uncover the genes most likely responsible for defining sorghum characteristics, saving researchers the effort of randomly choosing genes that may be inconsequential.

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

“This is an exciting time to be in plant sciences and to be a part of interdisciplinary projects,” Thompson said. “Because the technologies are so new, this type of approach was not possible until very recently.”

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

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