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Research / Discovery

Researchers studying sorghum for bioenergy project

February 26, 2014
Kortny Rolston

Colorado State University researchers are aiding the U.S. government in its quest to develop non-food crops that can be converted in bioenergy. Anireddy Reddy, professor of Biology, recently received a $1.38 million federal grant to study how different varieties of sorghum react to drought and identify specific genes that may enable the grass to withstand a lack of water.

  His project is one of seven funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the agencies’ joint plant biomass genomics initiative.

“It paves the way to creating drought-resistant grasses and trees for bioenergy,” Reddy said.

 No more corn

Not long ago, corn-based ethanol was the biofuel of choice in the United States.But as more and more growers began planting corn for fuel, many worried about the impact on the nation’s food supply.

Since then, the focus has shifted to preserving the most fertile soil for food crops and harvesting the leftover leaves and stalks for biofuel and developing new strains of sorghum, switchgrass and certain trees that can grow in poor soil and need little water.

“The goal is to plant these feedstocks on marginal lands and in climates that aren’t suitable to grow food so they don’t compete with one another,” Reddy said.  

But to do that, researchers need to better understand these potential bioenergy sources so they can be bred to grow in harsh conditions.

Why sorghum?

Sorghum is one of the best drought-adapted plants. There also are natural variations of sorghum cultivars that are tolerant or susceptible to drought, making the grass easier to test.

Reddy and his team will be using some of these cultivars to analyze the impact of drought stress on all genes at multiple levels.

Analyzing data

Studies like these that attempt to analyze genome-wide changes in gene expression generate very large amounts of DNA and RNA sequence data, which require development of new computational tools. 

Asa Ben-Hur, associate professor of Computer Science who specializes in bioinformatics, is a co-investigator on this project and his team will be developing computational methods to analyze the data generated in Reddy’s group.

Ultimately, this research will lead to identification of genes and molecular processes that are important for drought tolerance.

“Once we identify the critical genes and processes that are important for drought tolerance, we can then use that information to develop drought-resistant feedstocks and crops,” Reddy said.