An international team of researchers have unlocked a large-scale genomic analysis of Setaria or foxtail millet, an important cereal crop. The study, led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and including scientists at NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi, advances our understanding of the domestication and evolution of foxtail millet, as well as the genetic basis for important agricultural traits.
Foxtail millet is one of the oldest domesticated grain crops in the world and has been grown by humans for roughly 11,000 years. It held a dominant position in Chinese agriculture before the introduction of high-input agricultural practices like irrigation and chemical fertilizers. The protein-rich grain – which employs C4 photosynthesis, a highly efficient form of photosynthesis that helps it adapt to different environments – is resilient to drought and can thrive in low-nutrient soils.
The NYU Abu Dhabi research team, led by Michael Purugganan, the Silver Professor of Biology at NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU, and the study’s co-senior author, provided avenues for foxtail millet breeding for climate change adaptation in a paper published in the journal Nature Genetics. Purugganan’s research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program (IOS-1546218 and 2204374), the Zegar Family Foundation, and the NYU Abu Dhabi Research Institute.
The research established the Setaria pan-genome – the entire set of the species’ genes – by assembling 110 representative genomes from a worldwide collection of 1,844 Setaria species. Researchers performed large-scale genetic studies for 68 traits across 22 environments in 13 geographical locations, each with distinct climactic conditions, identifying potential genes and marker-panels for how foxtail millet has evolved and improved at different geographic sites. For instance, the researchers found that the gene SiGW3 regulates grain yield of foxtail millet.
Foxtail millet is considered to be the foundation for early Chinese civilization. Moreover, because it is a crop that can grow across a wide range of environments – including arid lands – it has the potential to be important for food security under climate change.
The study was organized by Xianmin Diao, a Professor at the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, who added: “This paper is a significant milestone, as it paves the way for the next generation of comparative genomics studies that can help to decipher the molecular mechanism of C4 photosynthesis. The large-scale comparative genomics, genome-wide association study, and genomic selection studies of Setaria not only provide opportunities for gene discovery and breeding advancements in foxtail millet itself, but also offer insights for other crops to enhance global food security.”