Sorghum: Harnessing the power of climate smart crops

Turning to plants as an energy source is something we take for granted. Every day, we power our bodies and feed our livestock with plants. Ongoing climate change poses a threat to this energy source as some of our most-used crops are facing stressors like never before.

But a promising new candidate, sorghum, is changing the game. As we begin to see the effects of climate change, it is clear that not all crops will be reliable producers in the long term—extreme weather patterns and changing ecosystems pose a threat to many of the sources of food and energy that we rely on. Sorghum, however, is up to the challenge.

As a heat-resistant and drought-tolerant plant, sorghum has the ability to adapt to a wide range of climates and is therefore likely to be a viable crop in even the most challenging of growing conditions. This is what makes its potential as a source of bioenergy so exciting. As the need for carbon-neutral energy sources increases, the stress on Earth’s plant life increases as well. Where the yield of other crops is already being affected by weather and environmental stressors, sorghum stands firm, a crop that promises to be reliable for years to come.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and scientists working within our Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels are proud to be at the forefront of game-changing research to harness the power of this extraordinary plant.

Nadia Shakoor, PhD, principal investigator and senior research scientist at the Danforth Center, is part of the nationwide team that is working to quantify the climate impact potential of sorghum as part of a five-year, $65 million project led by the National Sorghum producers. “Sorghum inherently boasts climate-smart attributes, and a tremendous opportunity exists to implement further climate-smart production practices and activities on working lands to achieve substantial carbon capture, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to other associated environmental benefits,” said Shakoor.

Through the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and in partnership with a number of other top scientific research institutions, Danforth Center Principal Investigator Andrea Eveland, PhD, is leading the Determination of Gene Function program, which seeks to understand what makes sorghum so resilient to the stress of a changing climate. And it doesn’t stop with sorghum.

“There is extraordinary genetic diversity underlying sorghum’s adaptation to stressful environments, and we want to tap into this in a precise way to inform engineering and breeding strategies for future climates,” said Eveland. “We have little understanding of what most of the 30,000+ genes in the sorghum genome do and whether functionally conserved genes have unique control mechanisms in drought-adapted sorghum -- this information could help efforts to make other crops more stress resilient too.”

Water is a major limitation for crop production. The movement of water from soil through the stems and leaves and out into the air moves nutrients up the plant. Crop irrigation consumes 70% of global freshwater use. “To be economically viable and have environmental benefits, crops used for bioenergy production need to be grown where the supply of water is insufficient or too inconsistent to support production of traditional food crops,” said Danforth Center Principal Investigator Ivan Baxter, PhD, who is leading a multi-institutional research project funded by DOE to deepen the understanding of water use efficiency in sorghum.

The team will work in parallel with sorghum and a closely related model plant, Setaria viridis, which is smaller and faster growing to enable rapid testing. In both species, genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics will be used to identify new genes that can affect the control points. Synthetic biology approaches will be developed to control when and where in the plant the genes are expressed, and modeling will be used to determine the best approaches. New plant transformation approaches will be used to accelerate evaluation cycles, moving quickly from idea to implementation. “Combining ‘design-build-test-learn’ cycles with parallel studies of model and crop species will enable rapid experimental iterations, leading to faster and substantial water use efficiency improvements in bioenergy feedstocks,” Baxter said.

The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels
The Enterprise Institute at the Danforth Center leverages bioenergy crops to create green solutions for global challenges. Danforth Center scientists are working to develop plant-based materials, or feedstocks, for bioenergy that are more environmentally sustainable and higher in energy content.