Sugarcane’s genetics more complex than humans: research

Savannah Meacham |

It has taken nearly a decade for scientists to crack the genetic code for sugarcane.
It has taken nearly a decade for scientists to crack the genetic code for sugarcane.

The mystery of sugarcane’s genetics has been unlocked by researchers, paving the way for better crops and renewable energy growth.

It has taken nearly a decade for scientists to crack the genetic code for sugarcane, ensuring it was the last of the world’s 20 major crops to be deciphered.

Human genomes have about three billion bases of genetic code while sugarcane has three times as many.

The other key difference is inherited genes, with humans having two chromosomes from their parents while sugarcane has 12 different traits.

“It is far more complex than humans,” co-author Professor Robert Henry from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation told AAP.

“The fact it has this complex genetic structure has made it very difficult to analyse the DNA.”

Unlocking the code has ensured scientists can now enhance sugarcane’s genetics for more resilient and bountiful farming yields as well as biofuel uses.

“Breeding of sugarcane has been slow and it’s coming from a very narrow genetic base and we’ll be able to broaden that so we should be able to have greater diversity,” Prof Henry said.

It could be used as the carbon raw material for a host of products like plastics, carpets, fabrics and petrochemicals.

Changing the genetic composition could also mean sugarcane is used for sustainable aviation fuel.

“It means airlines could fly with a zero carbon footprint,” Prof Henry said.

“For long distance flights we don’t see any other options.

“Short flights like Sydney to Brisbane will be in electric in the future but long haul flights won’t be possible with electric planes.”

As for farming capabilities, modifying the genetic code could mean crops are more resilient to climate-based damage like cyclones in Queensland’s far north.

Principal investigator and CSIRO research scientist Dr Karen Aitken said the genome mapping would mean crops could be made disease resistant and solve the problem of stagnating sugar yields.

“This is a major 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,” Dr Aitken said.

Prof Henry said the discovery is the platform on which the science of sugarcane crops and uses can be propelled forward.

The research paper was published in Nature.