Queensland researchers bring sorghum gene genie out of the box


Queensland scientists have developed the world’s first pan-genome for sorghum in a breakthrough for crop improvement and gene discovery.

Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner said the discovery unlocks the genomic treasures to breed improved varieties of the ancient cereal grain.

“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,” Mr 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.

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

Dr Emma Mace from QAAFI's Centre for Crop Science

“Until now our knowledge of the sorghum genome has lagged behind other major crops. Armed with the pan-genome data, researchers can now tap into variation at specific genes to breed improved sorghum varieties.”

Mr Furner said the Palaszczuk Government supported 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,” he said.

Mr Furner congratulated the 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 who jointly announced their discovery in the prestigious journal Nature Plants.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Australian Research Council co-funded the project which aimed to improve productivity in sorghum.

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; and
  • 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.

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.

Contact: Dr Emma Mace, Centre for Crop Science, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, The University of Queensland, E. emma.mace@uq.edu.au, T: +61 7 4542 6729, M: 0438 998 313; Ron Goodman, Ministerial media advisor M: 0427 781 920; Margaret Puls, UQ media E. m.puls@uq.edu.au, T: +61 (0)419 578 356.

Images are available to download from Dropbox via this link.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a research institute at The University of Queensland supported by the Queensland Government via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Last updated:
23 September 2021