Detailed genome maps of the cereal crops maize and sorghum are thought to be at least three years away. But computational biologist Doreen Ware at the US government lab - Agricultural Research Service - believes scientists need not have to wait that long.
Ware, based in Ithaca, New York, and colleagues are trying to give researchers a head start on these studies by supplementing what is currently known about the genetic make-up of sorghum and maize with data from the genome map of rice.
Rice, the first crop to be almost fully genetically sequenced, is a relative of the two cereal crops. However, the genomes of maize and sorghum will take longer to complete because they are large and complex, compared to the rice genome.
According to Ware, the study will add to knowledge of genome organisation and the evolutionary relationship between three agronomically important crops.
Researchers will also develop methods for building and finishing comparative maps that can be applied to future genome-scale projects.
Amid recent high prices for corn and wheat, the resilient sorghum grain has been the focus of recent research to tease out new functionalities from this cheap, easy to grow food crop.
Used principally for animal feed, in a separate ARS study, food scientist Scott Bean at ARS in Manhattan, Kansas, is investigating the kernels of food-grade sorghum, aiming to bring the gluten-free grain into mainstream food products such as breads, biscuits, pizza crusts and noodles.
And a greater understanding of the genome could accelerate research into the benefits.
"We are working on identifying the chemical reasons behind why certain sorghum hybrids are of much better quality - crumb grain, texture of bread - than others," Scott Bean, lead researcher on the project recently told FoodNavigator.com.
The ARS researchers sent off a batch of nine US commercial and experimental sorghum hybrids to be tested at the University of Cork in Ireland. "The samples showed a big difference in the quality of bread - coarse versus fine texture for example. Once we have identified the chemical reason behind the differences, we can work on developing sorghum hybrids with new functionalities," added Bean.
While the gluten-free aspect of sorghum is a key thrust behind the sorghum ARS research, crop prices are also in the equation. Sorghum - also called milo - is a much cheaper crop compared to the record market prices recently witnessed for wheat, soy and maize.
If the technologists succeed in designing new characteristics for food formulations, the hardier sorghum crop could become a cheaper source for alternative ingredients to wheat, already the case for the animal feed market.
On the back of high corn and wheat prices, Europe this year imported some 1.5 million tonnes of sorghum, compared to a mere 12,000 tonnes last year.