Both the stalk and seed of sorghum can be used in the production of biofuels.
Both the stalk and seed of sorghum can be used in the production of biofuels.

Clemson University’s Institute of Translational Genomics, led by geneticist Stephen Kresovich, has been awarded $6 million by Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy as one of six projects seeking to accelerate the development of sustainable energy crops for the production of renewable transportation fuels.

ARPA-E, a federal agency within the Department of Energy that promotes and funds research and development of advanced energy technologies, announced the projects in Washington, D.C. When combined, the six selected TERRA (Transportation Energy Resources for Renewable Agriculture) projects have been allotted a total of $30 million.

Clemson’s project, with Kresovich as principal investigator, is titled “Breeding High Yielding Bioenergy Sorghum for the New Bioenergy Belt.” The university will collaborate with the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and partners to combine genomics and robotics in an unprecedented approach to advancing agriculture and plant breeding.

According to the ARPA-E announcement, Kresovich will lead a team of geneticists, engineers and computational scientists in an expansive examination of the phenotype of a massive set of international diverse sorghum materials. The phenotype of an organism involves how genetic and environmental influences merge to create its physical appearance, composition and behavior.

Stephen Kresovich

In addition, researchers will design and build cutting-edge robotics – ground and aerial – that will use space-age technologies to enhance the ease and frequency of data collection for crop testing. These new instruments will directly contact the plants in order to systematically quantify physical characteristics that are currently measured with more labor-intensive methods. As a result, our understanding of the plant material’s potential use as a transportation fuel will increase dramatically.

“These projects represent the future of agriculture,” said Kresovich, Coker Chair and director of Clemson’s genomics institute. “They are examples of how advanced tools of engineering and genomics are going to be used to tailor and optimize agricultural systems and plant breeding in the 21st century. They bring together the best we know in biology, genetics and agronomy to be able to perform high-intensity screening to either identify useful genetic resources or to breed the newest and best hybrids particularly tailored for the end use.”

Kresovich’s team will use sophisticated cameras and imaging algorithms to develop 3-D models of individual plants and their canopy structure, implement machine-learning techniques to analyze the data, then translate the data into predictive algorithms for breeding improved biofuel sorghum hybrids, according to the ARPA-E announcement.

“We’re aiming for faster and better,” said Kresovich, who is recognized as one of the nation’s premier agricultural genetics experts. “We’ll be able to screen more genetic resources, look at more plant traits and calculate and understand which genes or gene networks are associated with those traits. We’re on the cusp of changing our impact on agriculture in the southeastern United States.”

The six projects will blend and advance the working relationship between agriculture, information technology, robotics and engineering.

“Clemson has received this grant because the university has top researchers, smart students and an overall staff capable of managing big projects,” Kresovich said. “We have the capability to effectively deliver innovative technology to the marketplace.”

Here is a breakdown of the five other TERRA projects: