ONE OF the world’s largest independent agri-research institutes, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, has been given a three-year, $6.1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand and accelerate the development and use of advanced sorghum phenotyping and breeding technologies to produce improved varieties for sub-Saharan farmers.

“This grant will help increase the productivity of a crop that can, in a sustainable and effective way, reduce hunger and poverty and make communities economically stronger and more stable over the long term,” said Danforth president James Carrington.

By recognising the species as a critical source of nutrition for millions of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Gates funding broadens the Danforth's existing efforts to boost the yield of sorghum as a bioenergy feedstock crop in the United States.

“Initially we launched the project to gain a greater understanding of the phenotypic and genomic variation of bioenergy sorghum, and to lay the foundation for genomics-enabled breeding strategies for US sorghum bioenergy feedstock production – but the same strategies are directly extendable to food security crops,” said researcher Todd Mockler. “I’m grateful to the Gates Foundation for recognizing the need to extend the application of advanced genomics and phenomics technologies to food crops that will benefit millions of people living in the developing world.”

Sorghum is a member of the grass family and is grown worldwide. It is of interest, not only because it is a staple crop in Sub-Saharan Africa, but because grain sorghum yields have been flat or declining due to the lack of sufficient investment in the development of new improved varieties.

In the wild, the plant is very resilient to drought and heat stress, and its natural genetic diversity makes it a promising candidate for identifying stress-resistance mechanisms in grasses that may have been lost during the domestication of related cereal crops. It is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water, making it an ideal crop to target for improvement to meet the predicted doubling of global food demand by 2050.