FORT COLLINS, Col., June 7, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Faculty Investigator Alex Harkess’ laboratory a HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnologyand their collaborators New Western geneticshave recently been awarded a three-year, $650,000 United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) grant that aims to unlock the full potential of industrial hemp, a versatile plant used for centuries as a source of industrial fiber, seed oil, food and medicines.

(PRNewsfoto/New West Genetics)

(PRNewsfoto/New West Genetics)

In our changing climate, there is a growing need for more suitable and sustainable crops. Industrial hemp is a promising candidate for sustainable fiber, protein, and oil because it has a deep, massive root structure that sequesters more carbon than typical row crops, requires lower inputs, and has greater resistance to drought and pests.

Hemp plants are also biologically interesting because they have separate male and female sexes. Of the two, female hemp plants possess greater commercial value due to their higher biomass production and unique ability to produce seeds rich in beneficial lipids and proteins. As a result, hemp farmers strive to get a substantial percentage of female plants thriving in their crop areas. This emphasis on maximizing female hemp plants aligns with the larger goal of harnessing the crop’s sustainable qualities to thrive in our changing climate.

HudsonAlpha faculty investigator Alex Harkess, PhD, and his lab are experts in studying the genetic basis of sex in plants. Through this USDA-NIFA grant, Harkess and his lab will build several high-quality hemp genomes and use them to identify and analyze hemp sex chromosome pairs. Using a laboratory-developed pipeline, the team will identify key sex-determination genes in hemp, which can be modified to control sex and increase the proportion of female plants, leading to higher yields of fibre, oil and protein. Raising more female hemp plants will increase the yield and quality of hemp fiber, grain and oil crops, making it a sustainable and valuable crop for farmers and consumers alike.

“The separate male and female sexes have evolved hundreds if not thousands of times in plants, and finding the genes that control sex determination is so challenging because most plants do it very differently from each other.” Harkess said. “These genes are found on the sex chromosomes, the most difficult chromosomes to sequence and assemble in plants. However, with HudsonAlpha’s historic expertise in plant genome sequencing, we are now able to reveal the full complexity of sex chromosomes in species such as hemp and finally on the genes that control this agriculturally and economically valuable trait”.

HudsonAlpha will work closely with New West Genetics, a global leader in creating high-quality, stable hemp seed genetics with enhanced characteristics for sustainability, food, feed and fiber applications. They are experienced in combining traditional breeding, modern genomics and agronomic expertise to create proprietary non-GMO hemp seeds bred for multiple markets. In addition, they are actively developing new methods of changing the ratios of male to female plants in the fields. NWG AMPLIFY, the first commercial, scalable hemp hybrid, contains a genetic trait that creates hemp populations that are up to 100% female rather than the typical 50%. This change, along with the vigor of the hybrid, results in twice the amount of grain and flower yield and much greater overall uniformity. Rich FletcherChief Technology Officer of New West Genetics, says, “This trait is due to a relatively simple genetic basis that can be transferred to new strains using a genetic marker. We are still studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of the trait with the ultimate goal of the full control over gender relations”.

“Gaining a greater understanding of the genomic basis for genus will be a powerful tool for improving germplasm,” he said John McCayNew West Genetics Chief Science Officer and Professor of Plant Genetics at Colorado State University. “We are also curious to see if these findings could be instructive for male/female reproduction targets in other species, both plant and animal. Working with HudsonAlpha on this grant will be exciting and result in quality research with robust commercial applications.”

Read more about this project “Using genomics to unlock the full potential of industrial hemp”.

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SOURCE New Western genetics

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