Sorghum, the third most abundant cereal crop in the United States, is emerging as a star player in the biofuels industry.

Right now, however, maximizing the crop’s potential is challenging. The function of much of its complete set of DNA remains a mystery. Without pinpointing the function of more of sorghum’s roughly 30,000 genes, researchers can’t fully use sorghum for biofuel production.

That’s the problem a group of University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers, led by plant geneticist James Schnable, has set out to address. The team recently earned a $2.7 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a rapid, efficient method for characterizing the functions of genes in sorghum.

The Nebraska scientists are leading a team of institutions from across the Corn Belt — including Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — in this effort.

Their approach, an innovative merger of machine learning and plant genetics, will pave the way for sorghum strains designed to thrive in specific environments. The method could also extend to other crops such as corn and soybeans, the vast majority of whose genes are unstudied.

“If we understand the details about how plants perceive and react to their environments, we can develop varieties specialized to certain parts of the U.S.,” said Schnable, associate professor of agronomy and horticulture. “Right now, for many genes, we have no idea what they do.”

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