Breeding sorghum for growth

UQ researchers are using genetics to revolutionise the Australian sorghum industry, increasing both yields and profits for growers.

Sorghum yields might not be a topic that instantly strikes you as exciting.

That is, until you consider the crop is worth $600 million per annum to Australia and is vital as feedgrain to the nation’s cattle, pork and poultry industries.

Recent analyses have shown that the rate of productivity gain for sorghum in Australia is greater than that reported by any other developed nation.

UQ has played a significant part in that outcome via a sorghum pre-breeding public research program, run by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).

The work has been led by Professor David Jordan at QAAFI, and Professor Graeme Hammer, the inaugural director of QAAFI’s Centre for Crop Science.

Professor David Jordan says improved genetics are one of the principal contributing factors towards the upward surge in Australian sorghum.

“Sorghum genetic improvement is the focus of a program led by UQ, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Grains Research and Development Corporation,” he says.

“The program draws upon a range of scientific disciplines such as plant physiology, crop modelling, molecular biology, pathology and entomology.”

UQ’s development of elite germplasm (otherwise known as parent lines) for licensing to the global sorghum hybrid seed industry has generated both positive economic and environmental impacts.

Cumulative net benefits of more than $220 million have been felt in Australia since 1997, averaging out to around $20 million per year.

At the same time that sorghum yields have increased, growers have also benefited from decreased production costs due to higher insect resistance and reduced need for chemicals.

The traits commonly desired in sorghum are resistance to sorghum midge, high yield, and improved performance in water-limited environments.

Some producers have reported the percentage of midge-affected plants on their property has dropped from 40 per cent to less than five per cent thanks to more robust plant genetics.

“Other key achievements of the program have been increased efficiency and use of available water, and increased flexibility for growers to sow at different times of the year,” Professor Jordan says.

“Genetic material from the pre-breeding program is now incorporated into every sorghum crop in Australia, which extends across 671,000 hectares in Queensland and northern New South Wales.”

Aside from its uses as livestock feed, sorghum is also a staple for 500 million people worldwide. It has become popularised in the westernised human market as a gluten-free ‘ancient grain’ and has many of the same nutritional values as raw oats.

Despite being a staple food in countries such as India and Ethiopia, sorghum is yet to reach its potential in the Australian food market, which leaves room for future growth. Some projections contend that by 2050 there will be nine billion people on Earth and food needs will have doubled.

“Sorghum’s health benefits are not just because it is gluten-free, but also because of the high concentration of phytochemicals, especially antioxidants,” Professor Jordan says.

“In some specific phytochemicals, concentrations were twice the concentration as some other products, such as psyllium husk, which is considered a high-fibre health product.

“Sorghum, in Australia, has primarily long been an important crop in the northern grain belt for local feedgrain and export uses.

“Our contribution has been to help maintain its value to growers and industry via continuous improvement.”

New markets have also opened in China, where sorghum is used to make baijiu, a clear liquor. Baijiu is the most widely consumed alcoholic spirit in the world, with more than five billion litres sold per year, ranging in alcoholic content of between 28 to 65 per cent.

Professor Hammer says there are still more opportunities to be explored.

“The program will continue to pursue benefits for growers and industry through high-impact science, targeting greater yields and advances in product quality,” he says.

“New opportunities are arising around possibilities for simultaneous design of genetic traits and crop management systems.

“We refer to this as the GxExM paradigm – which stands for genetics x environment x management.

“This is an area where crop and climate modelling can connect with the adaptive elements of genetics and agronomy.”

Professor Jordan comments that when compared to many other crops, sorghum is highly resistant to a range of environmental stresses, particularly drought and heat.

"These resistances, combined with its small, well-characterised genome, make the crop an excellent model to discover traits that can be used in other crops," he says.

To date, the program has licensed nearly 3000 sorghum lines to the sorghum producing industry since 1989 – many more than any other public sorghum pre-breeding programs around the world combined.

In terms of what he derives the greatest pride from, Professor Hammer says it is mostly the teamwork that has made the outstanding advances possible.

“It’s a great trans-disciplinary team effort that focuses good science on industry impact,” he says.

“The team has high regard, both nationally and internationally, where it contributes to food security issues, like those of smallholder farmers in Africa.

“The team leader, Professor David Jordan, maintains excellent working relationships across all the scientists and industry partners involved, and I think that’s another element that cannot be overstated.”

The story so far

1957: The Queensland Government commences a sorghum pre-breeding program based at Hermitage research station.

1962: The first commercial sorghum hybrids are introduced to Australia.

1993: The Grains Research and Development Corporation begins co-funding the sorghum pre-breeding program. Dr Robert (Bob) Henzell from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) leads the program and develops it into an industry-facing, multi-institutional research collaboration. DAF institutes a commercial licensing scheme to manage commercial use of germplasm produced by the program. 

1997: A 20-year investment in five sorghum pre-breeding projects, made by DAF, the Grains Research and Development Corporation and UQ, commences.

2009: UQ’s Professor Hammer is awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project titled: Mechanistic characterisation of genotype x environment interactions in sorghum and arabidopsis.

2010: The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) is established at UQ as an industry-focused collaboration with the Queensland Government, and the sorghum pre-breeding program leadership transitions to Professor Jordan.

2010: Professor Jordan and Professor Ian Godwin receive an ARC Linkage Grant titled: NextGen Sorghum: Genomic approaches to novel renewable bioproducts.

2010: Professor Hammer leads the publication of an advanced computer model of sorghum growth and yield that is capable of simulating the consequences of manipulating complex adaptive traits.

2012: The Queensland Government announces a $4 million international collaboration involving UQ researchers to improve sorghum productivity under drought conditions, led by Professor Jordan and Professor Hammer and funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

2012: Professor Hammer is awarded both the Australian Medal for Agricultural Science and the Farrer Memorial Medal.

2013: Dr Emma Mace and Professors Ian Godwin and David Jordan lead a global consortium that publishes the world's first large-scale sorghum re-sequencing project in Nature Communications.

2013: Professor Jordan receives an ARC Linkage Project titled: Fertility crisis: harnessing the genomic tension behind pollen fertility in sorghum.

2015: Professors Godwin, Jordan and Jimmy Bottella are awarded an ARC Discovery Grant titled: Breaking the nexus: more biomass in cereal grain.

2018: Professor Hammer is included in the Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers 2018 list.

2019: Professor Hammer, Professor Jordan and Dr Emma Mace receive an ARC Linkage Project titled: Beat the heat: Adapting sorghum crops for global climate futures.

Contact details

Professor David Jordan

Professor David Jordan, Professorial Research Fellow 
Phone: +61 7 4542 6722

This article was last updated on 5 March 2019.

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Professor David Jordan

Professor David Jordan