The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and New West Genetics has been awarded a three-year, $650,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). The grant will support research to unlock the full potential of industrial hemp, a plant known for its versatility and used for centuries as a source of industrial fiber, seed oil, food, and medicine.
In the face of climate change, there is an increasing demand for more sustainable and adaptable crops. Industrial hemp is a promising candidate due to its deep root structure, which sequesters more carbon than typical row crops, requires fewer inputs, and exhibits excellent drought and pest resistance.
The grant will fund genomic research to understand further and exploit industrial hemp’s potential. Female hemp plants, which produce higher biomass and yield seeds rich in beneficial lipids and proteins, are fascinating. The research aims to increase the proportion of female plants, thereby enhancing the yield of fiber, oil, and protein.
HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Alex Harkess, Ph.D., and his lab will use the grant to build several high-quality hemp genomes and identify and analyze the hemp sex chromosome pairs. The team aims to identify the master sex determination genes in hemp, which can be modified to control sex and increase the proportion of female plants.
“Separate male and female sexes have evolved hundreds if not thousands of times in plants, and finding the genes that control sex determination is challenging because most plants do it very differently,” said Harkess. “However, with HudsonAlpha’s historical expertise in plant genome sequencing, we can reveal the full complexity of sex chromosomes in species like hemp.”
HudsonAlpha will collaborate with New West Genetics, a global leader in creating premium, stable hemp seed genetics. New West Genetics has developed NWG AMPLIFY™, the first commercial, scalable hemp hybrid, which contains a genetic trait that creates hemp populations of up to 100 percent female rather than the typical 50 percent. This shift results in double the grain and flower yield and more excellent uniformity overall.
“Gaining a greater understanding of the genomic basis for gender will be a powerful tool for improving the germplasm,” said John McKay, New West Genetics Chief Science Officer and professor of plant genetics at Colorado State University. “Working with HudsonAlpha on this grant will be exciting and result in quality research with solid commercial applications.”