News Release

Danforth Plant Science Center to lead multi-institutional research project to improve bioenergy crop’s water use

Crop irrigation consumes 80% of global freshwater use

Business Announcement

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

ST. LOUIS, MO, December 7, 2022 - Principal Investigator Ivan Baxter, PhD, member, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, will lead a five-year, $16 million multi-institutional project to deepen the understanding of water use efficiency (WUE) in sorghum, a versatile bioenergy crop. The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Biosystems Design to Enable Safe Production of Next-Generation Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biomaterials program, will focus on an integrated engineering approach that leverages plant physiology, genetics, genomics, genome engineering, synthetic biology and modeling. 

Water is a major limitation for crop production. The movement of water from the soil through the stems and leaves and out into the air moves nutrients up the plant. Crop irrigation consumes 80% of global freshwater use. “To be economically viable and have environmental benefits, crops used for bioenergy production need to be grown where the supply of water is insufficient or too inconsistent to support production of traditional food crops,” said Baxter. 

Yields of bioenergy crops, such as Sorghum bicolor, have increased through breeding and improved agronomy. However, the amount of biomass produced for a given amount of water use has remained constant. 

Joining Baxter as collaborators on this project are Jennifer Brophy and José Dinneny, PhD, Stanford University; Asaph Cousins, PhD, Washington State University; Andrew Leakey, PhD, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; Albert Kausch, PhD, University of Rhode Island; Todd Mockler, PhD, Danforth Center; Sue Rhee, PhD, Carnegie Institution for Science; and Dan Voytas, PhD, University of Minnesota. The team will focus on three major control points of water-limited production: enhanced acquisition of available water by roots, reduced water use through the pores plants use to exchange water and CO2, and improving photosynthetic carbon assimilation. Work within the consortium aims to identify the major bottlenecks that affect each of these processes and address them through engineering approaches.

The team will work in parallel with sorghum and a closely related model plant, Setaria viridis, which is smaller and faster growing to enable rapid testing. In both species, genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics will be used to identify new genes that can affect the control points. Synthetic biology approaches will be developed to control when and where in the plant the genes are expressed, and modeling will be used to determine the best approaches. New plant transformation approaches will be used to accelerate evaluation cycles, moving quickly from idea to implementation. “Combining ‘design-build-test-learn’ cycles with parallel studies of model and crop species will enable rapid experimental iterations, leading to faster and substantial water use efficiency improvements in bioenergy feedstocks,” Baxter said.

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education, and outreach aim to have an impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.

The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels
The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute at the Danforth Center leverages bioenergy crops to create green solutions for global challenges. Danforth Center scientists are working to develop plant-based materials, or feedstocks, for bioenergy that are more environmentally sustainable and higher in energy content.


For more information contact:
Karla Roeber, Vice President, Public and Government Affairs,
+1 314.406.4287

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