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Husker research hones in on sorghum’s genetic makeup to improve nitrogen efficiency

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Lincoln, Nebraska – A University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientist is leading a multi-institution effort to better understand the genetic makeup of sorghum in an effort to improve the crop’s nitrogen use efficiency.

Jinliang Yang, assistant professor of agricultural engineering and horticulture, is leading a three-year, $2.7 million project involving other Husker scientists as well as collaborators at Kansas State University and the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology in Alabama. The interdisciplinary project is funded by a grant from the US Department of Energy.

Increases in nitrogen fertilizer prices and the environmental impact of fertilizer run-off on ecosystems have led to extensive research to increase fertilizer application efficiency in sorghum. This research, at Nebraska and other institutions, has helped scientists answer questions about the processes of nitrogen assimilation, transport, and reallocation. Studies have identified specialized nitrate carriers and sensors, helping scientists characterize the nitrogen filling process, all while focusing on helping the crop use nitrogen as efficiently as possible and reduce fertilizer use. A third of the sorghum grown in the United States is used to feed livestock, and it is a common food crop in regions of Asia and Africa.



This new research will also focus on other aspects of sorghum fertilizer use, including nitrogen sensing, signaling, and downstream regulatory pathways.

Scientists have previously described a number of sorghum genes that appear to have a role in nitrogen management. They edited those genes using the CRISPR-Cas9 process — a technology that allows scientists to find a specific piece of DNA inside a cell and then alter that DNA. The new project will enable the Nebraska-led team to further characterize these phenotypically and molecularly modified genes.



In addition, the scientists will edit and characterize a second set of nitrogen-responsive genes through the Nebraska High Throughput Phenotyping System, eventually leading to field testing. These genes may play an essential role as nitrogen sensors. Finally, the project will finance the generation of population-wide gene expression datasets.

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“The overall goal is to try to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use,” Yang said. “We would like to better understand the genetic functions of individual crop genes and then put them together as a complex network.”

Eventually, the most promising variety of sorghum will be tested in agricultural fields in Nebraska.

Yang’s collaborators in Nebraska include Thomas Clemente, the Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Biotechnology; Yufeng Ge, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor in Biological Systems Engineering; and James Schnabel, Professor of Agricultural Engineering at Charles O. Gardner.

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