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New Forage Plant Prepares Farmers For Climate Changes

April 4, 2012

Researchers, including plant researchers from the University of Copenhagen, have developed a new type of the corn-like crop sorghum, which may become very significant for food supplies in drought-prone areas. Unlike the conventional drought-resistant sorghum plant, which is an important crop in e.g. Africa, China and the USA, this new type does not form toxic cyanide when exposed to long-term drought. Consequently, farmers in drought areas will no longer need to discard their sorghum crops in future.

Sorghum, or durra, is an important forage crop in many countries, for example the USA, Africa, China and Australia.

The plant is grown instead of corn because it produces more biomass and better withstands long periods of drought.

However, when exposed to drought, the sorghum plant produces large amounts of dhurrin, which forms toxic cyanide, i.e. Prussic acid.

Forced to discard crops

Farmers thus face a big dilemma. During a period of drought when they most need food for their animals, they are often forced to discard their sorghum because they do not know how poisonous it is and how much the animals can eat without suffering from cyanide poisoning.

In Australia alone, farmers lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year as a result:

“The fact that the sorghum plant produces large amounts of the natural cyanogenic glycoside dhurrin when exposed to drought is a serious problem for farmers in many parts of the world. Dhurrin breaks down to form toxic cyanide or Prussic acid when an animal eats the plant. So when there is a drought and most need for forage, the farmer can no longer use the crop and it goes to waste,” says Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, Birger Lindberg Møller.

New, toxic-free sorghum strain is a breakthrough

Recently, Birger Lindberg Møller and his research group have, in collaboration with, for example, Monash University in Australia, developed a sorghum plant which is unable to produce Prussic acid.

Instead of using genetic engineering, the researchers used plant breeding and advanced biochemical and molecular biological screening methods:

“This is a breakthrough which, globally, can be very important for agriculture, especially in warmer climes where climate change is expected to cause longer and more frequent periods of drought in future. Especially in Africa, where farmers cannot afford to buy new forage in periods of drought, it is a huge step forwards that they will now be able to feed their animals with sorghum they can grow themselves,” says Birger Lindberg Møller.

The University of Copenhagen and Monash University have submitted a patent application.

Copenhagen Plant Science Center gathers plant research

Professor Birger Lindberg Møller is an internationally leading researcher in explaining the way in which plants produce bioactive natural substances. This research area will be a key part of the research profile for the future Copenhagen Plant Science Center.

The centre will bring together the University of Copenhagen´s research and education within plants and plant-based foods and provide even better possibilities for working with the business sector.

On Wednesday 28 March, Maive Rute, Director for Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology in the EU Commission, visited some of the research environments which in future will make up the Copenhagen Plant Science Center. The purpose of the visit was to examine the possibilities for major new EU initiatives and investments in the plant and energy area:

“The visit is important because in future it will increasingly enable Danish research results to be translated in collaboration with both small and larger businesses into specific products and developing strategies which can counter some of the challenges posed by climate change in terms of reduced yields and the spread of new plant diseases. There is a serious need for knowledge-based solutions within bioenergy, foods, medicine and other bio-based raw materials which can benefit research and business,” says Professor Poul Erik Jensen, who, with Professor Birger Lindberg Møller, is an acting head of the center.

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