By Kyra Inglis
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (UTC/AP) – A research project aimed at mapping the DNA of sunflowers could one day yield a new variety of the plant that will be used for both food and fuel.
Researchers are looking at crossbreeding a standard sunflower with the Silverleaf species native to Texas that will produce bright yellow flowers bursting with tasty seeds and thick stalks. The stalks will be filled with complex sugars that can be turned into ethanol.
The goal is to locate genes responsible for agriculturally important traits such as seed oil content, flowering, drought, and pest tolerance. Scientists hope that within four years, they’ll be able to develop a basis for breeding program that has an understanding of the plants’ genes that dramatically reduces the time it takes to develop hybrids.
- The wild, drought-resistant Silverleaf is known for its woody stalks, which can grow up 15 feet tall and 4 inches in diameter.
- Sunflowers are a nearly $14 billion a year industry, with 32 million metric tons produced worldwide each year.
- The family’s genome is 3.5 billion letters long, which is slightly larger than the human genome.
- Sunflowers are used primarily for cooking oil, although the seeds are found in snacks and other products.
Researchers say that mapping the sunflower’s entire family sequence could lead to crop improvement, weed control and the development of wood-producing varieties that could be used for flooring and other products. “It’s extremely drought tolerant and grows very, very tall,” he said. “And what’s remarkable is that it’s pretty much wood from bottom to top, and yet it’s an annual,” said Loren Reisburg, a University of British Columbia botany professor and leader of the DNA sequencing project. “Increasing the complex sugars in Silverleaf’s stalk would make it a viable feedstock for ethanol.”