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Faster, stronger sorghum will feed millions in the face of climate change
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Scientists are honing the traits of speed, strength and near invulnerability in an important food crop that, much like a superhero, will help protect the vulnerable.
Achieving a milestone in their pursuit of the Superman of sorghum plants, scientists identified a single gene that confers broad protection from the fungal diseases anthracnose, rust and target spot.
Looking closer at the plant’s genome, they also discovered what might have been kryptonite to this super power and unusual snips of mobile DNA involved in the disease resistance.
The newly discovered gene, named Anthracnose Resistance Gene1, or ARG1, is unusual in several ways, Tesfaye Mengiste, a professor and interim head of Purdue’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology said.
“Although some natural resistance to fungal disease was known in sorghum, genes that confer such widespread resistance had not been identified,” he said. “It is remarkable that a single gene leads to resistance across a broad spectrum of fungi and multiple strains of the anthracnose fungus.”
A team of Purdue University researchers, including 2009 World Food Prize laureate Gebisa Ejeta, made the discoveries through a project supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet.
Climate change is predicted to increase the number and severity of plant diseases, said Mengiste, who led the research.
“We need more robust disease control to sustain the world food supply, and these remarkable plants are one step ahead of us,” Mengiste said. “Different varieties of sorghum have evolved with different strengths and resistance to disease. Through genetics and plant science we are trying to help them along in this process of adapting to a changing environment.”
By finding the gene responsible for a desired trait, scientists can create biomarker tags that allow breeders to test for its presence quickly and incorporate it into a sorghum cultivar that has other beneficial traits. The team’s work is detailed in a paper in the journal The Plant Cell.
“The importance of this work cannot be overestimated,” said Ejeta, a distinguished professor of agronomy at Purdue and executive director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security. “This is a significant scientific breakthrough and a culmination of decades of collaborative sorghum improvement research at Purdue along with partners in developing countries.”
Sorghum is a key cereal crop for food security around the world, said Mengiste, who is part of Purdue’s Next Moves in plant sciences and Purdue’s Center for Plant Biology.
“It is a very resilient plant in many ways, but fungal diseases can wipe it out,” he said. “Anthracnose is one of the most significant of these pathogens and attacks all parts of the plant: leaves, stalk and head. It leaves nothing that can be used for food, its primary use in Africa; or biofuels and animal feed, its uses in the United States.”