Humans have been growing millet plants for thousands of years. The foxtail millet, Setaria italica, a nutritious cereal crop high in protein and oils, is one of the oldest domesticated crops. It is currently most commonly grown for food and feed in India, China and parts of Africa. Just like farmers who grow other crops, the people who grow and have historically grown millet plants have been breeding this plant to be a productive food source. For example, the foxtail millet retains its seeds for consumption, while its wild counterparts shatter and drop their seeds for dispersal.
Mutant Millets is part of the Enterprise Rent a Car Institute for Renewable Fuels
The Mutant Millets project works with scientists from the Enterprise Rent a Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
The Green Millet as a Model Organism
Scientists have a new interest in millets because a very close relative of the foxtail millet, the green millet, Setaria viridis, has been proposed as a model organism for scientific research on agriculturally important crops. Although the green millet shares many traits with the foxtail millet, unlike the foxtail millet, which can grow to heights of six feet or more, the green millet is a short stature plant that will flower quickly, within three weeks, is largely self-pollinating and completes its life cycle in six to eight weeks. Each plant can produce hundreds to thousands of seeds. It has simple growth requirements and thus has the potential to be an excellent model genetic system for the grasses.
Just like medical researchers who study mice, plant biologists use model organisms. Model organisms are closely related to the species of interest (i.e. mice and humans are both mammals), but are easier to care for in a laboratory setting, are smaller in size and have shorter life cycles. Of increasing importance to a model organism is a thorough knowledge of their genetics, as well as available genomic information. The genome of the green millet has been sequenced and annotated (Bennetzen, J.L. et. al. 2012).
Plant scientists also look for the ability to perform certain experiments with model plants. Although tricky due to the small size of the flowers, the green millet can be cross-pollinated to perform genetic experiments. See cross-pollination in action in this video published by Danforth scientists on the online video journal JOVE. Research is still ongoing, but there has been some promising work to genetically enhance the green millet. This means that scientists can incorporate new genetic material into the plant’s genome. Most importantly, the green millet performs an efficient type of photosynthesis called C4 photosynthesis. For more information on C4 photosynthesis, click here. This metabolic pathway is of great interest to many researchers, which is why they are looking to the green millet to learn more.