By Will Ferguson, College of Arts & Sciences

grant-writing-cousinsPULLMAN, Wash. – A trend of dry summers and low snowpack in coming years is expected to pose challenges for Washington farmers, especially those working marginal lands without access to ample irrigation.

Asaph Cousins, associate professor of biology at Washington State University, is part of a $13.5 million research effort looking at ways to address these challenges for agriculture nationwide.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Cousins and his collaborators at the University of Nebraska and seven other institutions are investigating the development of sorghum crops that can grow in marginal soils with scant water and nitrogen yet produce large quantities of quality plant materials for brewing biofuels.

Biofuels are a potentially renewable, carbon neutral source of energy made from sugars extracted from fibrous or woody plant materials, such as stems and leaves. They have the potential to provide a secure, renewable source of energy that will reduce dependence on fossil fuels and cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

In the U.S., most biofuels are made from corn, but sorghum, known as the camel of crops, creates more biomass for cellulosic ethanol than corn and requires one-third less water to grow.

“We want to figure out which sorghum varieties grow best in dry, marginal conditions,” Cousins said. “We can use this information to breed for certain traits to enhance the efficiency of water and nitrogen use.”

“Research to find crops that fit the more arid climate and water scarcity of the future will be essential for effective and efficient agriculture,” said Larry Hufford, director of the School of Biological Sciences at WSU. “It is critically important for our university and students to be involved in this kind of work.”

During the next five years, research in his laboratory will focus on screening diverse varieties of sorghum to identify the genes responsible for desired traits. The large-scale screening will analyze leaf material using the Stable Isotope Core laboratory in the School of Biological Sciences at WSU.

Collaborators at the other institutions will be identifying and characterizing soil microbes that interact with and benefit sorghum. Together, the two approaches will help identify the physiological and plant/microbe interactions that will enhance sorghum’s efficiency.

Additionally, the sorghum research could help scientists identify important traits for growing other cereal crops in warming climates and improving productivity under dry or otherwise unfavorable conditions.