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Team Discovered Key to Sorghum Heat Tolerance, Plans to Use Knowledge to Boost Tolerance in Corn

A team of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working in the lab of Ed Cahoon, director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation, has discovered key biochemical and genetic factors that give sorghum its ability to tolerate heat and environmental extremes.

Sorghum is widely known to be much more heat and drought tolerant than corn, making sorghum the crop of choice for semi-arid climates. Up until now scientists didn’t know the reasons why - but now they do. Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science outlines how sorghum’s high tolerance to adverse heat and drought is partly attributed to the large amount of wax coating in its leaves and stems, serving as a barrier to moisture loss, especially at high temperatures. This wax is also a highly enriched steroid-like substance on mature plants - a component that is devoid in the lesser wax found on corn plants. The key gene for this steroidal wax is mutated in corn, resulting in the plant’s ability to produce it. However, scientists at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Husker scientist Tom Clemente are working on adding the non-mutated sorghum gene to corn. At the same time, the University of Nebraska team is exploring diverting a portion of sorghum’s wax content to produce high-value oils as co-products of bioenergy sorghum.

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