Scientists in Queensland develop the first pan-genome for sorghum


Scientists from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and BGI Genomics have developed the world’s first pan-genome for sorghum, in a breakthrough for crop improvement and gene discovery. 

Sorghum is a drought-tolerant staple crop for half a billion people in Africa and Asia, an important source of animal feed throughout the world and a biofuel feedstock of growing importance. 

This discovery unlocks the genomic treasures to breed improved varieties of the ancient cereal grain. 

The scientists announced their discovery in prestigious journal, Nature Plants. The Global Diversity Trust and the Australian Research Council co-funded the project, which aimed to improve productivity in sorghum. 

Dr Emma Mace. Image credit: University of Queensland

“This is exciting news for Queensland, where sorghum is a staple crop used mostly in the intensive livestock sector and worth more than $250 million this year,” Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner said. 

“A pan-genome describes all genetic variation within a species, and this enables researchers to find previously missing genetic information. 

“A team of scientists led by Dr Emma Mace identified novel genes from wild relatives of cultivated sorghum that could help to increase crop adaptation to environmental and disease stresses,” he said. 

Other genes were also identified for productivity and nutritional traits, such as grain colour, grain weight and seed dormancy. 

“Until now, our knowledge of the sorghum genome has lagged behind other major crops,” Furner said. 

“Armed with the pan-genome data, researchers can now tap into variation at specific genes to breed improved sorghum varieties.” 

Other key research outcomes included: 

  • Gene numbers in different sorghum varieties vary much more than thought 
  • Total gene number per individual varied from approximately 31,000 to 37,500 genes 
  • Wild relatives contained the largest proportion of unique genes 
  • Genomic studies are limited if based on a single individual’s genome. 

The new data is already being used in breeding efforts to improve the yield and resilience of crop varieties in Australia, in the face of mounting challenges to production, including climate change and increased water scarcity. 

The Queensland government supports a wide range of agricultural research through partnerships with industry, universities and through its research locations across Queensland. 

“Agriculture is an important part of Queensland’s Economic Recovery Plan, and supporting research like this will help to maintain Queensland farmers as world leaders,” Furner said. 


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