The UGA research will aim to decipher the genetic blueprint of valuable plants in the grass family and identify useful genes to make crops more drought-tolerant, among other things.
"The grass family, which includes valuable food plants, is unrivaled in terms of economic and ecological importance," said Gordhan Patel, vice president for research and associate provost.
"The research these NSF awards support will not only advance knowledge in basic plant genetics," Patel said, "but may lead to improvements in crops such as sorghum, rice and wheat."
Sorghum Biology, Productivity
A four-year, $3.97-million award will enable UGA plant geneticist Andrew Paterson and collaborators at UGA, Clemson and Cornell to "apply genetic maps and genomic tools to better understand sorghum biology and productivity," Paterson said.
Sorghum is the world's fifth most important cereal crop and second most important feed grain. Its annual value is $1.5 billion in the United States alone.
"One phase of this project is to build the skeleton on which the research community will be able to flesh out a complete sequence of the sorghum genome, much like the publicly funded human genome project in the 1990s," said Paterson, director of the UGA Center for Applied Genetic Technologies.
Other phases of the project will look beyond the information available from sequencing into how various genes function and how they're inherited.
Paterson's lab also will study sugarcane, a close relative of sorghum, as part of a collaborative effort with a Brazilian sugarcane initiative. The grant is a renewal of a $3.2 million NSF award three years ago.
Improving Stress Tolerance
UGA plant scientist Lee Pratt, a co-investigator on Paterson's earlier grant, received $3.6 million to pursue a different line of sorghum research over the next three years. Pratt's group aims to identify genes that improve plant growth in adverse environments.
"Our goal is to focus on genes related to various kinds of stresses, especially abiotic ones such as high light exposure, air pollution, drought and soil-nutrient limitations," said Pratt, distinguished research professor in the UGA botany department.
In the earlier grant, Pratt's lab identified 15,000 unique sorghum genes. By the end of the new project, he expects to have increased the number to 20,000, which may be as much as two-thirds of all sorghum genes.
Pratt's group also will find which of these genes are active under stress by using a new method called microarray technology, in which the expression of thousands of genes can be detected simultaneously.
Collaborators on the project include researchers from UGA, Texas A&M, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and Tokyo University.
A third award of $1.1 million will support Tifton, Ga., horticulture professor Peggy Ozias-Akins' work on grass family genetics.
Focusing on Apomixis
Ozias-Akins' lab will focus on a wild pearl millet relative that has a trait called apomixis, a botanical curiosity in which plants produce seeds that are clones of the mother plant.
"Apomixis is not a common trait but is more frequently observed in the grass and sunflower families," Ozias-Akins said. "This trait is rare in domesticated plants and absent from our major crops."
If the trait for apomixis could be introduced into crops by gene transfer, it has the potential to revolutionize plant improvement and seed production.
Other UGA collaborators for these grants include John Bowers, Joann Conner, Marie-Michèle Cordonnier-Pratt, Alan Gingle and Daniel Peterson.