Enhancing Sorghum for Biofuel Production

Corn may be king, but sorghum is a top contender to replace it as the nation’s primary biofuel source. UNL leads multi-institutional research to improve sorghum’s productivity and significantly advance sustainable ethanol production.

Optimizing sorghum’s biofuel potential would relieve pressure on an important global food source. Sorghum grows on marginal lands and needs less water and resources than corn.

Daniel Schachtman
Daniel Schachtman

“It’s becoming increasingly recognized that we need to move biofuel production to more marginal lands so they don’t compete with food crops,” said project leader Daniel Schachtman, an agronomist who also directs UNL’s Center for Biotechnology.

Nearly all U.S. ethanol is made from starch in corn kernels. But technologically advanced ethanol plants now use cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls.

Sorghum bred for energy production creates more biomass for cellulosic ethanol than corn.

With $13.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, UNL leads a team of researchers with diverse expertise from nine universities and institutes. UNL’s tremendous field research capacity, extension programs and plant research expertise make it an excellent institution to lead the project, Schachtman said.

“Nebraska will be the focal point for much of the work. The university has developed fantastic field research facilities that really put us ahead,” he said. “Because we’re doing work in the field, it will translate into practical applications much faster.”

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Sorghum roots

To improve sorghum’s productivity under resource-limited conditions, the team takes a systems approach. Researchers are investigating both sorghum genetics and soil microbes that interact with roots.

Outcomes should include strategies to increase plant biomass as well as to make sorghum production systems more water- and nutrient-efficient.

The work taps advances in marker-assisted breeding, metagenomics and computational genomic analysis. Scientists will identify sorghum varieties and the genes that enhance water and nitrogen use efficiency under limited conditions. Microbiologists will identify and study soil microbes that enhance nutrient uptake, water use efficiency and disease resistance.

Bringing both approaches together, the team will experiment to find the genetic and microbial combinations that deliver the greatest productivity benefits. Initial research has demonstrated promising results, Schachtman said.

UNL is teaming with scientists at Danforth Plant Science Center, Washington State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Boyce Thompson Institute, Clemson University, Iowa State University, Colorado State University and the DOE Joint Genome Institute.


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