University of Illinois receives $5 million federal grant to improve sorghum

The University of Illinois will try to improve the water usage of sorghum with a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Sorghum is a giant grass usually grown as a cereal crop that has recently gained attention for its capacity as a biofuel.

The three-year grant from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program will fund research to find ways to make sorghum use water more efficiently, with hope of expanding the potential acreage available for production to 9 million acres that are currently too dry to sustain the crop. The research will be led by plant biology professor Andrew Leakey.

“It’s about trying to provide solutions that make agriculture more productive and more sustainable,” Leakey said. “That’s a really key goal for this century.”

The research will test a hypothesis that suggests by using genetic manipulation to create plants with few pores on their leaves, the plants will breathe less and lose less moisture. Researchers will also experiment with creating a center of photosynthesis lower on the plant to create a higher area of humidity around the plant, also saving on water loss.

Leakey estimates the project could yield a sorghum plant that would be 40 percent more efficient in its water usage if the strategies are successful.

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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

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