Sorghum Seed Technology Targets Tolerance

test plot
Farmers inspect a test plot of sorghum plants developed for specific genetic traits. Photo courtesy United Sorghum Checkoff Program.

Sorghum grows throughout the world in wide-ranging environments and growing conditions. This high level of variety provides a broad genetic base from which researchers can develop desirable traits quickly and effectively.

“We can look for DNA markers for specific traits within the sorghum species then apply those to breeding and seed development programs without having to borrow them from other plant species,” said Chad Hayes, a sorghum geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in Lubbock, Texas.

This ability to use genetics from within the species results in targeted genetic improvements while offering a crop that can enter the marketplace without issues associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

For USDA sorghum research, the emphasis is currently focused on drought- and cold- tolerant varieties. Demand for sorghum this marketing year has led to increased plantings, including in areas of the United States that traditionally haven’t produced much of the crop.

“We are looking into indentifying the DNA markers that contribute to drought tolerance in dry areas and researching the ability of sorghum seed to germinate in cooler conditons for the northern regions,” Hayes said.

The process for developing new drought- and cold-tolerant sorghum is the same that has been applied to other crops. 

“We’ve not seen the emphasis to apply the knowledge to sorghum seed programs until recently because seed companies – and to some extent, farmers – did not see the potential for a return on the investment of such technology,” Hayes said.

However, a robust and energized effort by the U.S. sorghum industry, paired with rising demand for sorghum, has shifted the focus and provided support for sorghum improvements to USDA and university researchers.

Disease tolerance is another important consideration for genetic trait selection. The emphasis is toward seed varieties that are tolerant to disease-inducing situations throughout the growing and harvest seasons without impacting the end quality and quantity of the grain.

“We know there is a strong demand for sorghum,” Hayes said. “The unified effort within the sorghum industry is moving forward with technology for U.S. farmers to grow a hardy and high-yielding crop that produces a quality grain demanded by international buyers.”