Improving Food and Feed Value of Sorghum Through Targeted Research and Technology

SMIL research project focuses on efforts to develop sorghum varieties with improved protein digestibility in West Africa.

This project and research was funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, known as the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab (SMIL). This lab is funded by USAID and managed at Kansas State University.

The  protein digestibility and nutritional value of vast quantities of sorghum grown worldwide are being improved through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL) global research program.

Since 2018, SMIL has been using targeted research and technology transfer to enhance sorghum production and nutritional value in cooperation with their international partners: Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Niger (INRAN), Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey (UAM), Centre d’Etudes Régional pour l’Amélioration de l’Adaptation à la Sécheresse (CERAAS), Centre National de Recherche Agronomique (CNRA), Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), and Institut de Technologie Alimentaire (ITA).

Why Focus on Sorghum and Protein?

Sorghum is a staple crop for hundreds of millions of consumers, and more than 50% of the global acreage of sorghum is produced in Africa. It is the second most important cereal crop in yearly production in the area. However, protein availability can be limited in sorghum, especially after wet cooking.

Dr. Elisabeth Diatta-Holgate, a researcher on the project, said, “My research is making sorghum more nutrient available. Sorghum, naturally, when it is cooked, has its nutrients trapped, making it less available to the consumer. I work on improving the availability of nutrients in the consumed sorghum so the consumer benefits. Malnutrition will be something that we can fight with sorghum.”

Senegal Lab is Vital Aspect of Project

Researchers on the project have identified allelic variations in genes that influence grain and forage quality and, more specifically, protein digestibility. A large part of the efforts is the Protein Digestibility Lab in Senegal, the center of research for the project in West Africa. 

After a new variety was developed in the lab, researchers engaged local farmers and end users to evaluate the varieties being created. Sorghum is a crop that is already drought-resistant and has adapted to the climate and soil of West Africa, so these local partners were explicitly focused on the bread- and couscous-making qualities of the grain. 

Dr. Mitch Tuinstra, principal investigator of the SMIL research project and professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics Agronomy at Purdue University, said, “I think one of the important take-home points of the SMIL program is improving crops that are locally adapted to climate change and variability, and that's really what improves their resilience.”


Progress on Increasing Protein Digestibility

In addition to being a hub to connect researchers with local growers, researchers at the lab in Senegal have identified two sorghum varieties with 23% to 37% more digestible proteins than other sorghum varieties. These varieties were found after studying 385 sorghum cultivars from Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. 

Once these varieties were discovered, whole genome sequencing and large-scale mapping studies were conducted at Purdue University. The large-scale studies attempted to identify mutations and genes responsible for the increased protein digestibility in those varieties identified. 

Breeding efforts moving forward are focused on incorporating those genes into locally adapted cultivars. Testing continues using multi-location trials where grain is collected from each location to validate grain quality changes.

Breeding Program Established in Niger

At the INRAN Centre Régional de Recherche Agronomique (CERRA) facility in Niger, a breeding facility was founded, including a dry lab and a cold facility. The dry lab is used for seed preparation and the cold facility for seed storage. 

The breeding nursery assists with the multi-location trials being conducted to optimize the testing program. Through this breeding program, researchers are learning about which lines local farmers prefer. Local adoption is important to ensure the research is utilized and makes the desired impact in the community.

“We make available to breeders these markers that can be used in their breeding program in order to accelerate their early selection of plants that have the desirable traits they're looking for in terms of protein, digestibility, and nutrient content in general,” Diatta-Holgate said. “When it comes to the impact that has had in Senegal, we were able to develop sorghum lines that have improved post-cooking nutrient content that is more available.”

The project is slated to continue through 2023, and Dr. Tuinstra said, “There are great problems in Africa in terms of production, poverty, and agriculture development. Clearly, there's a need for technology. I think one of the big opportunities we’ve had in joining the SMIL team is deploying these technologies to solve farmer production problems in West Africa, working with programs in Senegal and Niger.”

This project and research was funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, known as the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab (SMIL). This lab is funded by USAID and managed at Kansas State University.

For more information on the sorghum trait deployment pipeline for improved food and feed value, visit the SMIL website.