Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Feeding the World: UGA Geneticist Enhancing Sorghum’s Drought Resiliency

When University of Georgia genetics professor Andy Paterson started to look for lines of sorghum that might survive in some of the most parched places in the world, he didn’t plant trials in the desert.

He started out by seeing which plants could survive a winter in Georgia. “We don’t see a lot of correlation between surviving cold and surviving drought,” Paterson said. But when sorghum that could withstand a Georgia winter was planted half a world away, the results were stunning: 48 percent survived eight months without rain in the north African nation of Mali.

Photo: Professor Andy Paterson.

Paterson, a Regents Professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, heads up the Feed the Future Innovation Laboratory for Climate-Resilient Sorghum, a $4.98 million USAID Feed the Future project aimed at creating varieties of sorghum that can survive extreme drought but are tasty to people who eat the cereal as part of their traditional diet. Sorghum — a crop sometimes called the “camel of cereals” because of its ability to withstand drought — requires about one-third less water than wheat and one half of what maize needs. It is a native plant and traditional staple crop in some African countries, where climate change is exacerbating food insecurity, so providing farmers with an even more drought-resilient sorghum could give them a crop to count on even in the driest years.

In the U.S., sorghum is used mostly for animal feed and fuel. It’s also a component in syrup and gluten-free versions of otherwise starchy products (like beer), but it’s not a major food crop.

“It’s just not part of our culture,” Paterson said. “But sorghum is an important food in parts of Africa, where some people may receive 30 percent of their daily calories from it. It may be compared to rice in some Asian cultures.”

In its third year, the climate-resilient sorghum project has made progress in its mission to use genomics tools to create even hardier varieties of sorghum, all the while promoting sustainable farming by preserving and restoring soil and water resources.

The work started in Georgia when Paterson began to look for sorghum lines that could grow perennially. Like most cereal grains, sorghum is an annual, producing seeds and dying at the end of each growing season, only to start again from seeds in the next season. This requires farmers to till and replant each year, disturbing the soil each time. Minimizing that soil disruption can curtail erosion and keep topsoil in place.

Growing trials in Georgia and coordinating with The Land Institute’s Stan Cox in Kansas, Paterson started to see which lines of sorghum could survive the cold of winter, a first step to see which might live weeks without rain.

“We had many genotypes that could overwinter in Georgia and even a few that could overwinter in Kansas,” he said. Wenqian Kong, a student working with Paterson and Cox, chose about 100 lines that had favorable yield and other properties, and a collaborator in Mali, Eva Weltzien with ICRISAT, took over.

“She planted the lines about June, and they went through their normal growing season. Then, they had an eight-month period with absolutely no rainfall. About 48 percent of the lines had some survival.”

Now, Paterson and colleagues are looking for diagnostic DNA markers in those survivors that might help them select for the resiliency trait without enduring another eight-month dry season. The ability to survive both cold and drought is connected to the plant’s ability to make rhizomes, underground shoots that may seem like roots, but actually are stems that can store energy for the plant and grow into an above-ground stem.

Its ability to grow rhizomes led Paterson to another plant that might lend some of its resiliency to sorghum: Johnson grass.

Considered by farmers and gardeners to be a noxious weed, Johnson grass is prolific at growing rhizomes, spreading itself into fields and garden plots and pastures throughout the U.S. Looking to give a small portion of that ability to sorghum, Paterson used a process called “backcrossing,” a traditional breeding process that repeatedly introduces a desired trait into a cross between two plants.

“We made a backcross to sorghum, so the progeny are 75 percent sorghum, 25 percent Johnson grass,” he said. The progeny flowered at the wrong time for Africa but proved the concept that the Johnson grass trait could be transferred into sorghum. The discovery couldn’t come at a better time.

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa — where sorghum is a traditional crop — are some of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Drought always has been a concern, but now prolonged and extreme drought has become the worry. In 2015, Ethiopia was gripped in a drought so intense that Paterson’s partners there couldn’t test drought tolerance of new varieties.

Photo: Techale Birhan, a Ph.D. student in plant breeding at Jimma University in Ethiopia, takes samples while two colleagues look on at the research site in Kobo, Ethiopia.

“They had no irrigation, so they were dependent on rainfall that they just weren’t getting. They made a judgment call that they didn’t want to lose the seed, so they didn’t plant that year,” he said. “They had enough rain this year, and the experiment is going well. It is sort of ironic that it is a challenge to study drought in certain places because drought has gotten so bad that even sorghum isn’t going to make it.” By the end of the project in 2018, plant breeders in Mali, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa will have adapted lines of sorghum that are based on their local varieties but with new mechanisms of drought resiliency bred into them.

“That will be the biggest single deliverable of the project,” Paterson said. “It is also important that we were able to get the perennial lines through both cold seasons and dry seasons. Our African partners will continue to work toward creating perennial lines that can get multiple crops from a single planting.”

Paterson, who also heads UGA’s Plant Genome Mapping Lab, started working with sorghum 25 years ago, as a junior faculty member at Texas A&M. The plant’s simplicity attracted him. Its potential keeps him intrigued.  “Among cereals, sorghum has a relatively small genome, which was useful for genomics studies,” he said. “But it has some interesting features, including climate resilience. Drought tolerance is only going to become more important over time.”