UNL, Chinese university look at proso millet collaboration
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Alternative Crops Breeding Specialist Dipak Santra traveled to China for a symposium on proso millet. He came home with a new understanding of potential uses for this small grain, and also the seeds of a collaboration between UNL and a Chinese university.
Variety development, germplasm exchange and genomic research are the areas where Santra hopes to cooperate with Northwest A&F University at Yangling, China.
In late August Santra attended the First International Symposium on Broomcorn Millet at Yangling. Proso is commonly called broomcorn millet in China. It's called proso millet in Russia, common millet in Japan, and in Korea both terms are used.
The conference was organized by Northwest A&F University, with which UNL has memorandum of understanding for exchange of students and faculty. UNL administrators have visited Yanglin, and last summer 30 undergraduate students from Northwestern A&F University were at UNL for about a month.
As the sole proso millet breeder in North America working to improve millet varieties, Santra wanted to see what was happening on the international scene.
Nebraska typically has one-third to one-fourth of the nations' proso millet acreage, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The state's growers usually harvest 100,000 to 150,000 acres annually, producing 1.2 million to almost 4.5 million bushels, with a value of $4 million to $21 million, according to NASS.
In the United States, proso is grown entirely for bird seed. But elsewhere, it is consumed by people.
"I learned that proso is very important crop in northern China," Santra said. It is the oldest cereal for human food, older than wheat. Millet originated in northern China an estimated 10,000 years ago.
The Chinese consume proso in numerous forms, such as sponge bread, spring bread, porridge, and others. Some are sweet and some are spicy.
The challenges facing Chinese proso growers are similar to those in the High Plains. Like the Nebraska Panhandle, northern China has a harsh climate that is prone to drought. Average annual precipitation is 12 inches.
Proso and foxtail millet are important crops there, both in irrigated and rain-fed (dryland) settings. The crop is so valuable that sometimes producers cover whole fields with fish net to protect them from birds.
The majority of China's millet varieties are brown seeded; in the United States white millet is more common. In China, both waxy and non-waxy millet are grown. In America, non-waxy is dominant.
Millet and several other ancient crops have been getting attention recently because consumers are more conscious of food's health qualities. Santra said Japanese research has established that proso millet has a low glycemic index; it does not cause blood sugar to spike as some types of carbohydrates do. Research also has shown that millet can help fight Type 2 diabetes and high blood cholesterol, and also help with weight loss, Santra said.
Japanese researchers are trying to identify the specific nutraceutical compounds in millet associated with some of these benefits. That information would help millet breeders develop millet varieties with better human health benefits.
At Yangling, Santra learned that China is conducting significant research into genetic improvement and production of millet--developing better varieties, with drought tolerance, and resistance to different diseases and insects. They are developing biotechnology tools to speed up cultivar development.
Most Japanese research focuses on nutritional composition of proso. Russia and Ukraine have a strong breeding program, with a rich germplasm resource that can be used to develop better varieties adapted to the High Plains.
Santra said proso millet researchers at Northwest A&F University are eager to develop a strong research collaboration, mostly centered on variety development, germplasm exchange, and genomic research. Few graduate students have shown an interest in visiting Santra's program and laboratory as visiting scientists.
Santra also has been nominated to join the scientific committee for organizing the next international symposium on proso millet scheduled to be held in Seoul, South Korea, in August 2014.
"I feel attending this conference was very useful for my program," Santra said.
Santra's proso millet breeding program focuses on developing better varieties with higher yield and more tolerance to lodging and shattering. He develops and makes use of modern genomic tools (DNA marker technology) to enhance variety development process.
Unlike corn, soybeans or wheat, there is very limited genomic research done on proso millet. At present, Santra's program is characterizing germplasm collected from different parts of the world for important agronomic traits, and also characterizing the same germplasm based on DNA markers.
Another area of genomic research is developing a genetic linkage map, identifying and mapping genes for important agronomic traits. This will eventually lead to developing DNA markers for indirect selection of those traits.
Santra also collaborates with faculty at Lincoln, such as the IANR's Food Science and Technology Department, in an effort to find alternative uses of proso millet like food, fuel, or industrial uses, to expand the market and reduce price volatilization from year to year.
Recently Food Science and Technology found that proso millet can be used for ethanol production as efficiently as using corn as a feedstock, which will open up a new use in biofuel production, Santra said. This work was conducted in Dr. Devin Rose's laboratory at Lincoln.
Santra's major constraint is lack of consistent funding. He said the future of the program and availability of newer, higher yielding varieties for western Nebraska or central High Plains is at high risk mainly because of lack of financial support.
Crossroads Cooperative and the University of Nebraska Foundation have started a fund-raising drive to help support the proso-millet-breeding program at the High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney and Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff. The Crossroads Coop and The Friends of Proso Millet Research Fund will be used to support a full-time technician dedicated to proso millet breeding.