Andrew Leakey, Associate Professor of Plant Biology, will lead a multi-institutional team to increase the water use efficiency of sorghum.
Andrew Leakey, Associate Professor of Plant Biology, will lead a multi-institutional team to increase the water use efficiency of sorghum.

The University of Illinois has been awarded a 3-year, $5 million grant from the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy as part of its OPEN 2015 funding initiative (ARPA-E OPEN). Under Principal Investigator Andrew Leakey, Associate Professor of Plant Biology, the interdisciplinary and multi-institutional team intends to increase the water use efficiency (WUE) of sorghum, a valuable bioenergy crop.

Sorghum, like nearly all plants, transpires through stomata: small pores on the surface of the leaf that allow for gas exchange. By decreasing the stomata, researchers hope to increase WUE by reducing the amount of moisture lost. In addition, by shifting a larger percentage of photosynthetic activity to lower leaves, the higher local humidity will further reduce water loss.

By combining these approaches, the team predicts via its mathematical models that it may develop sorghum with a 40% improvement in WUE. “That means that we should be able to expand the growing area into regions that are currently too dry to produce a profitable crop,” said Leakey. “And in the areas that are already suitable for growing, plants will suffer less in drought years, and make more biomass with the water that there is.”

All in all, this research could unlock more than 9 million new acres currently unusable for energy crop production, and increase production on currently farmed land by nearly 30% on average. Much of the newly available land is located to the west of sorghum’s current range, inspiring the project’s name, WEST (Water Efficient Sorghum Technologies).

These technologies fall into two main areas of interest: identifying naturally-occurring alleles that increase WUE, and using biotechnology to manipulate sorghum genes for the same purpose. “We can combine both natural alleles and those we’ve enhanced through genomic methods into novel lines,” said Steve Long, University of Illinois Gutsgell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences and WEST Deputy Director. “We anticipate that many of these genetic markers will be similar in other C4 crops, which means it would be possible to translate many of our findings to increase the efficiency of the closely related crops corn and sugarcane.”

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

WEST is a collaboration with researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Cornell University, and USDA Agricultural Research Services, Texas under lead institution the University of Illinois. Funding comes from ARPA-E OPEN, providing support for research that will transform and disrupt current energy technologies by improving production and efficiency. WEST represents the third ARPA-E grant at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, of which Leakey and Long are faculty members; read more here.