HudsonAlpha securs $3.9 Million from National Science Foundation to Work Toward the Crops of Tomorrow

Huntsville, Ala. – The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology along with partners at the University of Nebraska will work on understanding how sorghum responds to nitrogen-based fertilizer and educating the next generation of scientists in Agrigenomics. The opportunity comes from a four-year, $3.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Increasing the nitrogen efficiency of sorghum would help create a crop that requires less fertilizer to produce more yield, which would secure a food source, improve biofuel options and aid farming communities. In order to get to that point, we first need to understand how the incredibly complex genome of sorghum influences how nitrogen efficient the crop is.

Jeremy Schmutz, the principal investigator from HudsonAlpha, says, “We need to look at how to improve the sustainability of our crops now in order to make the changes we need for the future. We are just beginning to understand the impacts of our modern agriculture systems. We need to find solutions that make our crops more efficient — for both food and biofuel sources.”

Through this NSF Track-2 Focused EPSCoR Collaborations (RII Track-2 FEC) project, the team will conduct cutting-edge plant genomics research to better understand how nitrogen affects plant growth and development. HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will bring its biotechnology education and agricultural genomics research expertise to the collaborative project while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will contribute its expertise in CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and automated phenotyping with their state-of-the-art LemnaTeC high-throughput system for imaging large plants.

The team aims to draw out certain genetic expressions through gene editing, then see how those changes influence the overall nitrogen efficiency of the crop. By doing this, scientists hope to isolate specific genes or combinations of genes that will improve sorghum.

Joining Schmutz on the project is Kankshita Swaminathan, PhD, HudsonAlpha faculty investigator. She adds, “Improving crop yield and efficiency with a minimal impact on our environment, is the question of modern agriculture. But in a way, it’s always been the question. Modern genomics and biotechnology just gives us the world’s most efficient tool yet to solve it.”

In addition to the genomic research, the project also includes a workforce development component, creating a set of experiences to engage and shepherd students into agrigenomic-related careers. A multi-week summer academy for high school students, along with undergraduate mentoring and internship opportunities will be developed.

Schmutz and Swaminathan will be working in collaboration with Neil Lamb, PhD, and Sara Cooper, PhD, from HudsonAlpha. The team from The University of Nebraska includes James Schnable, Tom Clemente, Yufeng Ge and Jinliang Yang. The grant is part of the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, which builds research and development capacity in states that demonstrate a commitment to research but have thus far lacked the levels of investment seen in other parts of the country. Both Alabama and Nebraska qualify for the program.

The project starts on October 1, 2018.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. OIA-1826781. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

About HudsonAlpha: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a nonprofit institute dedicated to developing and applying scientific advances to health, agriculture, learning, and commercialization. Opened in 2008, HudsonAlpha’s vision is to leverage the synergy between discovery, education, medicine, and economic development in genomic sciences to improve the human condition around the globe. The HudsonAlpha biotechnology campus consists of 152 acres nestled within Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second largest research park. The state-of-the-art facilities co-locate nonprofit scientific researchers with entrepreneurs and educators. HudsonAlpha has become a national and international leader in genetics and genomics research and biotech education and includes more than 30 diverse biotech companies on campus. To learn more about HudsonAlpha, visit