HudsonAlpha, research partners awarded $8M to advance key bioenergy crop

Research to accelerate breeding and commercialization of bioenergy sorghum hybrids

Huntsville, Ala. — The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, in collaboration with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and others, has been awarded an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E TERRA program to conduct research aimed at accelerating breeding and commercial release of economically viable bioenergy sorghum hybrids.

The Genome Sequencing Center at HudsonAlpha will catalog the natural variation in sorghum DNA through sequencing natural sorghum populations that exhibit highly desirable biomass traits for the purpose of linking genotype (DNA) to phenotype (growth and other agronomic traits).

“The TERRA project will provide an unprecedented real-world test that couples existing genomic technology, which allows us to catalog the natural variation in sorghum DNA, with developing phenotyping technology, which will track agronomic traits with high precision over the growing season,” said HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Jeremy Schmutz, who co-directs the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center with Jane Grimwood, Ph.D. “We will combine these together to identify directly useful sorghum genes that can decrease the inputs and increase the growth rate of sorghum biomass for liquid fuels.”

The TERRA program uniquely integrates agriculture, information technology, and engineering communities to address major challenges in providing sustainable, affordable, and abundant plant feedstocks for food and bioenergy. TERRA projects will facilitate the development of improved varieties of energy sorghum, a crop used to produce biofuel, by developing advanced remote sensing platforms, new computational models, and improved breeding technologies.  These innovations will accelerate the annual yield gains of traditional plant breeding and will lead to the discovery of new crop traits that improve water productivity, nutrient use efficiency, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Under the direction of Danforth Center principal investigator Todd Mockler, Ph.D., partner institutions Clemson University, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of Illinois, and Washington University in St. Louis, and key collaborators at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the US Arid Land Agricultural Research Center of USDA-ARS, will focus on deploying an automated, robust field phenotyping system. The system will deliver baseline crop trait data of unprecedented quality and quantity, which will accelerate development of high-yielding bioenergy sorghum.

Along with its research partners, the Danforth Center will utilize a state-of-the-art, gantry-based plant phenotyping system for high-resolution imaging of entire crop plots grown under field conditions at a University of Arizona research center. The HudsonAlpha team will conduct genomic analyses on sorghum and will integrate phenotype and genomic results to create a high-quality reference dataset of energy sorghum’s physical characteristics and genomic information.

These innovations will advance the effectiveness and speed of sorghum breeding programs and production, and add next-generation feedstocks with more favorable greenhouse gas emission profiles to our total energy supply. Although the systems developed will initially be used to improve energy sorghum, they will be directly extendable to other significant energy or food security crops.

The USDA has forecast that more than 90 percent of U.S. cellulosic bioenergy needs will be met through biomass production in the South, with sorghum identified as a key crop. The new sorghum bioenergy belt will span east Texas, the Mississippi Valley, the Gulf Coast and the southern Atlantic Coast. Sorghum is a drought and heat tolerant member of the grass family and is grown worldwide. Sorghum’s adaptability to diverse environments, low fertilizer requirements, high biomass potential and its compatibility with row crop production positions it to become a premier bioenergy crop in the U.S.

About the Genome Sequencing Center: The HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center is a nonprofit research group, located at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, focusing on the generation of high quality plant and fungal genomic resources for the scientific community.  We specialize in eukaryotic whole genome sequence, assembly, and analysis together with improvement or finishing of complex eukaryotic genomes.

About HudsonAlpha: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a nonprofit institute dedicated to innovating in the field of genomic technology and sciences across a spectrum of biological challenges. Founded in 2008, its mission is four-fold: sparking scientific discoveries that can impact human health and well-being; bringing genomic medicine into clinical care; fostering biotech entrepreneurship; and encouraging the creation of a genomics-literate workforce and society. The HudsonAlpha biotechnology campus consists of 152 acres nestled within Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second largest research park. Designed to be a hothouse of biotech economic development, HudsonAlpha’s state-of-the-art facilities co-locate nonprofit scientific researchers with entrepreneurs and educators. The relationships formed on the HudsonAlpha campus encourage collaborations that produce advances in medicine and agriculture. Under the leadership of Dr. Richard M. Myers, a key collaborator on the Human Genome Project, HudsonAlpha has become a national and international leader in genetics and genomics research and biotech education, and includes 29 diverse biotech companies on campus. To learn more about HudsonAlpha, visit: