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Gates Foundation Awards $6.1m Grant to Danforth Center for Sorghum Research

January 25, 2017

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a three-year, $6.1 million grant to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to expand and accelerate the development and deployment of improved varieties of sorghum for smallholder farmers.

Sorghum is a critical source of nutrition for millions of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, as it’s more drought-tolerant than corn and produces higher yields during moderate to severe drought conditions. It’s also a leading bioenergy feedstock crop in the US.

Todd Mockler Ph.D, a member and principal investigator at the Donald Danforth center, said that in 2015, the science center launched the TERRA-REF project as a way to learn more about the phenotypic and genomic variation of bioenergy sorghum, which could help lay the foundation for genomics-enabled breeding strategies for US sorghum bioenergy feedstock production.

These same strategies can be utilized to improve genomics and phenomics technologies for food crops in the developing world. Researchers say that natural genetic diversity in sorghum is a promising system for identifying stress-resistance mechanisms in grasses that may have been lost during the domestication of related cereal crops.

The Danforth Center research is employing cutting-edge technologies to sequence and analyze grain sorghum genomes, capture tens of millions of phenotypic observations over the course of a growing season, and accelerate breeding efforts by connecting phenotypes to genotypes in the field.

The funding from the grant will be aimed at increasing the productivity of the crop in a sustainable way, with hopes of reducing hunger and poverty and making communities economically stronger.

According to the Whole Grains Council, sorghum is a whole grain that provides many nutritional benefits, commonly eaten with all its outer layers, retaining the majority of its nutrients. It’s a key component for the gluten-free market, which helps people with celiac disease or intolerance. Additionally, a gluten-free diet incorporating sorghum has been adopted by many with autism, ADHD and irritable bowel syndrome. Gluten-free foods are increasingly demanded by consumers.

Sorghum is also one of the most efficient crops in the conversion of solar energy and use of water, so it could play a vital role in helping to meet global food demand, which is expected to double by 2020.

“The National Sorghum Producers is excited to see the additional investment into sorghum research and breeding, which will help farmers around the world as they continue to deal with the challenges of advancing sorghum genetics to address climate variability and the need for increased food sustainability,” said Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the National Sorghum Producers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has long been a champion of those looking to improve agricultural development, having invested more than $2 billion in the sector— primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Most of this money has come in the form of grants; however, it did make a substantial equity investment in the $34.5 million Series B round of biological crop protection company AgBiome last year. It’s also issued grants to AgBiome, to help fund the evaluation and development of proprietary biological fungicides for Africa’s smallholder farmers.

The Foundation is intrigued by how sorghum is not only a staple crop in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also that it’s very resilient to drought and heat stress and has the opportunity to assist the US farming industry.

“The Gates Foundation recognizes that most smallholder farmers rely on small plots of land for food and income,” said James Carrington, Ph.D., president of the Danforth Center. “This grant will help increase the productivity of a crop that can, in a sustainable and effective way, reduce hunger and poverty and make communities economically stronger and more stable over the long term.”

The Danforth Center is partnering with ICRISAT (India), CERAAS-ISRA (Senegal), CIRAD (France), EIAR (Ethiopia), HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Kansas State University, University of Arizona, George Washington University, and NRGene (Israel) on this initiative.

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