January 28, 2009 / 7:30 PM / 10 years ago

Key food, biofuel crop sorghum's genome deciphered

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists have deciphered the genetic make-up of sorghum, a drought-tolerant crop and important food and biofuel source, and said the breakthrough could help develop better crops for arid regions.

This undated handout photograph shows the robust growth of sorghum in the background, with rice in the foreground. A international team of scientists has deciphered the genetic composition of sorghum, a drought tolerant crop that is an important food and biofuel source. This could lead to the development of better forms of sorghum and provide a blueprint for developing through breeding or genetic engineering improved forms of other crops such as corn, they said. The findings were published in the journal Nature. REUTERS/C. Thomas Hash/ICRISAT/Handout

Sorghum is one of the world’s leading cereals, along with corn, wheat, oats and barley, and can thrive in hot, dry conditions other crops cannot tolerate.

An international scientific team, writing in the journal Nature on Wednesday, mapped the genome which includes about 30,000 genes.

They said this new understanding could point to ways of creating even more drought-tolerant types while providing a blueprint for developing, through breeding or genetic engineering, improved forms of other crops such as corn.

Molecular biologist Joachim Messing of Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the researchers, described in a telephone interview visiting a farm in Mozambique last year.

“You should have seen the maize (corn) growing there, how poorly it did, and then see sorghum just across from it standing tall and green and resistant to disease and drought.”

Because sorghum is closely related to corn, the researchers said transferring some of its traits to corn could improve its value as a food and biofuel crop.

A variety called grain sorghum is a food staple in Africa and India. Another variety called sweet sorghum has a stem similar to sugar cane.

Sorghum is a superior biofuel source to corn because the entire plant can be used, not just the grain. Grain sorghum produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as corn while needing a third less water.

“This is an important step on the road to the development of cost-effective biofuels made from non-food plant fiber,” said Anna Palmisano, the U.S. Department of Energy’s associate director of science for biological and environmental research.

“Sorghum is an excellent candidate for biofuels production, with its ability to withstand drought and prosper on more marginal land,” she said in a statement.

“The fully sequenced genome will be an indispensable tool for researchers seeking to develop plant variants that maximize these benefits.”

Annual worldwide production of sorghum, at about 60 million tons, is less than the other major cereal crops.

Editing by Maggie Fox

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