ARS scientists have discovered genes in sorghum that can double the amount of grain that the plant produces.

Scientists are working on ways to double the yield of one of the world’s most important sources of food, animal feed and biofuel.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researchers in New York are conducting field trials and genetic studies that could one day do just that for sorghum.

The efforts follow recent discoveries by ARS scientist Zhanguo Xin, who is based in Lubbock, Texas, and Doreen Ware, who is also with ARS and is an adjunct professor at the Cold Spring Harbor lab, showing how a basic genetic change in sorghum can double its yield of grain.

Their findings, spelled out in a series of papers, are based on years of research by scientists with ARS and the Cold Spring Harbor lab. They initially sought out the genes of high yielding strains of sorghum developed by Xin at the ARS Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock. They also laid out a potential strategy for increasing the yields not only of sorghum but of other grain crops, such as corn, wheat and rice.

Being drought tolerant, sorghum is an important crop for farmers worldwide. Increasing production is considered a key to addressing the threat of food shortages in the years ahead with changing climates, growing populations and the loss of arable land in many parts of the world.

Sorghum grain is produced in clusters of flowers. The plant has two types of flowers – one that produces grain and another that does not. The researchers have shown that mutating a key gene in sorghum inhibits production of a hormone, known as jasmonic acid, and that plants with reduced levels generate more of the fertile type of flowers – and more grain.

Their results show that the gene, known as MSD1, is a major regulator of a cascading series of events along a genetic pathway that controls the production of jasmonic acid, particularly during flower development.

Xin and his colleagues are conducting field trials to see if the genes they have found could be used by breeders to improve yields in commercial varieties of sorghum.

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