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Modern hybrid sugarcane is a widely harvested crop used for various products such as sugar, molasses, bioethanol, and bio-based materials. However, due to its complex genetics, sugarcane was the last major crop without a complete and highly accurate genome. Through the Community Science Program at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (JGI), scientists successfully mapped out sugarcane’s genetic code, helping identify specific genes responsible for resistance to brown rust disease which can devastate sugar crops. This achievement was published in the journal Nature, showcasing the significant progress made in plant genomics.

With approximately 10 billion base pairs, sugarcane has one of the most complex genomes due to its polyploidy nature, containing more copies of chromosomes than typical plants. The use of multiple genetic sequencing techniques, including the PacBio HiFi sequencing method, was crucial in accurately reconstructing the sugarcane genome. This complete “reference genome” now allows researchers to study sugarcane more effectively, comparing its genes and pathways with other well-studied crops like sorghum, switchgrass, and miscanthus. Understanding how genes influence traits like sugar production and disease resistance can lead to advancements in crop breeding and protection against pathogens.

The study focused on a cultivar of sugarcane called R570, a hybrid that combines the sugar production qualities of domesticated sugarcane and the disease-resistant genes from a wild species. By sequencing R570’s genome, researchers can trace the origin of specific genes, aiding breeders in identifying traits for enhanced production. This knowledge is crucial for developing future sugarcane varieties with increased yields and improved sugar production, beneficial for both agricultural and bioenergy applications. Sugarcane is a vital feedstock for biofuel production, with its residues, or bagasse, also used for biofuel and bioproduct generation, contributing to sustainable conversion technologies.

Collaborations with research institutes worldwide, including those in France, Australia, the Czech Republic, and the United States, were essential in completing this study. The sharing of information and resources allowed for a comprehensive analysis of sugarcane genetics and its potential applications in agricultural and bioenergy industries. By understanding the genetic blueprint of sugarcane, researchers aim to control plant genotypes to optimize sugar and biomass production, essential for developing sustainable sugarcane conversion technologies on a large scale relevant to the bioeconomy. This study highlights the importance of advancing plant genomics to improve crop productivity and develop renewable energy sources.

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