Sustainability-in-Tech : Why Sugarcane’s Genome Mapping Matters

17th April 2024

Following a decade of research, it’s thought that the recent decoding of the complex genome of sugarcane could pave the way for advanced breeding techniques, more agricultural sustainability, and perhaps for developing a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel.

What Happened? 

Scientists from The University of Queensland, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and Sugar Research Australia (SRA) have achieved a scientific first and breakthrough in finally being able to fully map the sugarcane genome.

Why? 

Sugarcane is the last of the world’s 20 major crops to have its genome mapped. The value of genome mapping of our major crops is essentially in supporting the development of advanced agricultural practices and contributing to sustainable farming, enhanced food security, and improved nutritional outcomes.  For example, it can lead to:

– Crop Improvement – identifying genes related to yield, disease resistance, and nutritional quality, speeding up the development of superior crop varieties.

– Disease management – helping create disease-resistant strains, reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.

– Climate adaptation – facilitating the development of crops that can withstand changing climates and environmental stresses.

– Nutritional enhancement – enabling the fortification of crops with essential nutrients, addressing dietary deficiencies.

– Resource efficiency – leading to crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently, supporting environmental sustainability.

– Economic growth – boosting farm productivity and income, particularly in developing economies where agriculture is vital.

In the particular case of sugarcane, report co-author Professor Robert Henry from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, sees the value of mapping its genome as:

– Delivering knowledge to level the playing field with other crops.

– Giving the chance to create more resistant sugarcane crops.

– A major step forward in research to turn sugarcane and other plant biomass into aviation fuel.

It’s worth pointing out that although sugar cane is a food crop, Professor Henry is developing renewable carbon products from plant biomass for usage as a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel as part of the ARC Research Hub for Engineering Plants to Replace Fossil Carbon. The genome mapping of sugar cane is, therefore, being seen within the move to net zero as a way to lead to the production of a source of renewable carbon, i.e. a better raw material to replace fossil carbon.

Principal Investigator and CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Karen Aitken has also highlighted how sugarcane’s genome mapping breakthrough could also address the critical challenge of stagnating sugar yields by showing its previously inaccessible genetic diversity. She also says it is a “step forward for sugarcane research and will improve our understanding of complex traits like yield and adaption to diverse environmental conditions as well as disease resistance.” 

The Benefits Go Way Beyond Sugar 

One key benefit of the breakthrough, as highlighted by Sugar Research Australia cytogeneticist Dr Nathalie Piperidis, is that unveiling the sequence is likely to create many opportunities way beyond sugar itself. Dr Piperidis says: “Not only does the work hold the promise of enhancing our understanding of this amazing crop but it will also offer unprecedented ways to advance breeding techniques within the industry to produce a range of renewable and commercially viable products that include but go way beyond sugar.”

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

With the need to feed a growing world population amid the challenges of climate change, and with the need to decarbonise, there are sound reasons for wanting to crack the genetic codes of popular world crops. For example, being able to develop versions that can cope with challenging environmental conditions and which can be disease-resistant could help.

Sugar cane’s genome has been tough to crack, so this is a major achievement, not just for the future of foodvbut perhaps also in contributing to the development of a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel (from a sugar cane biomass). This is something that could really help tackle a major carbon challenge, i.e. how to decarbonise the aviation industry and ween it off fossil fuels.

Also, as CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Karen Aitken highlighted about the breakthrough, it could help address the critical challenge of stagnating sugar yields. Crucially though, as Sugar Research Australia cytogeneticist Dr Nathalie Piperidis has identified, this breakthrough in genome decoding could create important opportunities far beyond just sugar. For example, it could also have the promise to create a wide range of other renewable and commercially viable products in many different industries.

In short then, whilst this discovery has important implications for future food production, its benefits could go way beyond that, perhaps even in helping to tackle the massive challenge of decarbonising the aircraft industry. This helps illustrate the true value of seemingly small scientific breakthroughs and how they can have potential benefits way beyond the obvious. In a world which now has rapidly advancing AI and soon the promise of wider scale commercial quantum computing it remains to be seen how this could further speed up crucial climate change and decarbonising breakthroughs that could benefit us all.