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Andrew Leakey's Laboratory

Using System Approaches to Improve Photosynthesis and Water Use Efficiency in Sorghum


PI: Ivan Baxter (Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis)

Asaph Cousins (Washington State University)
Jose Dinneny (Carnegie Insti­tution for Science Stanford)
Albert Kausch (University of Delaware)
Andrew Leakey (UIUC)
Todd Mockler (Donald Danforth Plant Science Center)
Sue Rhee (Carn­egie Institution for Science), Daniel Voytas (Uni­versity of Minnesota)

project website:

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This project aims to develop novel technologies and methodologies to redesign the bioenergy feedstock Sorghum bicolor to enhance water use efficiency and photosynthetic efficiencies. Improving these two traits will make sorghum and other panicoid grasses (e.g. Miscanthus, switchgrass) more productive on marginal soils; thus addressing a key area of interest for DOE: Plant systems design for bioenergy. Our multi-disciplinary team has successfully collaborated in providing the genome-scale engineering foundations for this project through our current BER-funded project (DE-SC0008769). These efforts have focused on developing and deploying systems and synthetic tools for the panicoid grasses. Using Setaria viridis as a model system we have developed novel tools and methods to: capture field and chamber-based phenotypes [1-4]; interrogate genome-scale datasets [5-7]; utilize CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technologies [8] to efficiently manipulate gene expression and create stable loss-of-function alleles. Through recent advances in plant transformation, we are now poised to apply these methodological and computational methods to the engineering of a major bioenergy feedstock, Sorghum bicolor, using synthetic biology. This will include the deployment of orthogonal circuits to drive tunable cell-type specific gene expression profiles of single or multiple genes, as well as the creation of transgenic events engineered to reduce the risk of accidental release of engineered organisms into the environment (Fig. 1).

 Project Objectives

We have defined six project objectives to achieve these goals and assembled a diverse team with expertise in genetics and genomics of model systems and biofuel feedstocks (Brutnell, Mockler), plant water relations (Leakey, Cousins, Dinneny), phenomics (Baxter, Dinneny, Leakey, Mockler), photosynthesis (Brutnell, Cousins, Leakey), plant metabolic engineering (Rhee), genome engineering (Voytas, Kausch) and the U.S. plant regulatory process (Quemada). The specific objectives and lead PI’s are listed below:

Obj. 1:   Engineering photosynthesis for improve performance under water stress (Brutnell, Cousins)

Obj. 2:   Optimize water relations to enhance drought tolerance and WUE (Leakey, Dinneny Cousins)

Obj. 3:   Develop a comparative GWAS pipeline for sorghum and Setaria (Baxter, Mockler, Leakey)

Obj. 4:   Use metabolic network modeling to guide biomass engineering (Rhee, Mockler) 

Obj. 5:   Manipulate plant gene expression through precision engineering (Voytas)

Obj. 6:   Develop methods to improve transformation efficiencies in sorghum and establish and establish a regulatory framework for deployment of engineered organisms (Kausch, Quemada)