Bioenergy researcher gets $1 million grant to explore sorghum disease

February 04, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- A researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has been awarded a $1 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture for his investigation of anthracnose disease in sorghum.

The grant, part of USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive-grants program, will fund research conducted by Penn State and collaborative work done at the University of Kentucky and at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, also known as ICRISAT, in India.

The research is important because there is increasing interest in the evaluation and promotion of sorghum as a sustainable bioenergy crop substitute for corn (maize), according to principal investigator Surinder Chopra, associate professor of maize genetics. Anthracnose stalk rot and leaf blight are among the most important diseases of corn and sorghum, causing about 5 percent loss annually.

"This research will address the possibility that new and increased disease pressure for both maize and feedstock sorghum will result from the widespread introduction of sorghum," he said.

Sorghum is an annual crop that can be grown across the same climatic range using similar agronomic practices as corn, potentially making it a highly practical substitute, Chopra noted. Currently, large-scale sorghum cultivation is limited to the more arid regions in the United States, but it is likely that substantially more sorghum will be grown throughout the country in the future.

"As sorghum acreage increases, diseases will become a significant limiting factor for production, as is already the case in the United States and elsewhere in the world where sorghum is grown widely," he said.

Chopra, who is collaborating with two other researchers in the project -- Greg Roth, professor of agronomy, and Iffa Gaffoor, postdoctoral scholar -- explained that the research will characterize diversity among sorghum strains occurring in sweet, forage and grain sorghum and maize grown as rotation crops, and on wild sorghum relatives, in Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

"The work will evaluate the threat posed by the increased disease pressure caused by the cultivation of sorghum feedstock and maize in rotation or in close proximity to each other," Chopra said.

New sources of durable resistance to sorghum diseases also will be tested. "We propose to evaluate varieties not just for their performance during the growing season, but also on how they behave as debris once the growing season is complete," he said. "Breeding for varieties of sorghum that inhibit or retard development of the anthracnose fungus in the stalk debris would enable more extensive cultivation of sorghum alongside and in rotation with maize."

Development of disease-resistant strains of sorghum also would enable the use of no-till agricultural practices that are more environmentally friendly, Chopra pointed out. "Identification of targets for potential biotechnological manipulation of sorghum to express a nonhost resistance phenotype could lead to durable and highly effective control for anthracnose stalk rot and leaf blight," he said.


  • Surinder Chopra

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated January 09, 2015