Campus News

Plant geneticists isolate short stature gene in dwarf pearl millet

While pearl millet is a major food staple in some of the fastest growing regions on Earth, relatively little is known about the drought-hardy grain.

Recently, plant geneticists at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences successfully isolated the gene that creates dwarfed varieties of pearl millet. The dwarf varieties are economically important in the U.S., India and Africa, in particular.

Knowing which gene controls the dwarfing trait will help plant breeders create more efficient, sustainable varieties of millet that have the short stature some farmers and ranchers want.

The researchers, led by Katrien Devos, were able to trace the dwarf gene to plants bred 50 years ago by Glenn Burton, a UGA plant breeder who worked on the Tifton campus.

“Knowing the actual gene that reduces plant height has allowed us to develop markers that can be used by breeders to screen for the presence of the gene long before the effects of the gene can be visually observed,” said Devos, a professor in the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, housed in the crop and soil sciences department, and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ plant biology department.

“In the longer term, the knowledge gained in pearl millet will help to develop semi-dwarf lines with high agronomic performance in other cereal crops,” she said.

This discovery marks the first time a gene controlling an important agronomic trait has been isolated in the pearl millet genome. The work appeared in the March edition of the journal G3: Genes, Genomics, Genetics.

Rajiv K. Parvathaneni, a doctoral student working in Devos’ lab, was in charge of tracking down the gene, which works by controlling the flow of the growth hormone auxin through the plant. The gene that Parvathaneni found affects the downward transport of auxin, which is made in the top part of the plant. If this gene is on, the auxin flows freely, and millet will grow to its full height, about 10 feet. If it is off, the millet plant may grow to be only 3 to 5 feet in height.