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New K-State sorghum breeder brings international experience

Ethiopia and Kansas may seem a world apart, but Tesfaye Tesso has found there are commonalities between the two. One of them is a need to improve plants grown for food, feed, and fuel - in this case - grain sorghum.

Tesso, who was born in rural western Ethiopia, is the new sorghum breeder for K-State Research and Extension.

His interest in genetics began while he was working toward bachelor´s and master´s degrees at Alemaya University in Alemaya, Ethiopia.

"Although I always liked genetics, I truly became interested when I was doing my master´s research, where I was comparing the relative reaction of teff varieties to moisture stress treatment," Tesso said.

Teff is a tiny, round grain used as a food grain in Ethiopia.

After several years of research and teaching at Alemaya, Tesso came to K-State to work toward a Ph.D. in sorghum breeding, which he completed in 2002. He then went to Purdue University as a postdoctoral student to work on sorghum improvement for nutritional quality with an emphasis on protein digestibility.

After a year at Purdue, he took a position back in Ethiopia as a sorghum breeder and leader of the Ethiopian National Sorghum Research Program with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

Tesso returned to K-State in 2008 to become the sorghum breeder.

"My research focus at K-State is to continue building on the existing sorghum breeding initiatives," Tesso said. They include developing elite parent lines that produce high-yielding hybrids that are resistant to drought and stalk rot-induced lodging and continuing work in progress in incorporating traits that are resistant to certain herbicides.

He also plans to develop high-quality food-grade sorghum, adapted to temperate growing conditions.

In 2007, Kansas produced 212 million bushels of grain sorghum - 46 percent more than a year earlier. That kept the state in its long-term place as the No. 1 sorghum producer in the United States. In turn, the United States is the No. 1 sorghum producer in the world.

"Although much of the sorghum produced in the United States goes to the (livestock) feedlot, special markets are emerging for sorghum as gluten-free food," Tesso said.

That work will also help African countries where sorghum is already used as an important food staple, he said. Soon he also plans to work on developing high biomass sorghum to be used in biofuels.

"All these initiatives significantly benefit the sorghum industry in Kansas, the United States and in other countries," he said. "Our plan is to work toward ensuring maximum yield and to offer more effective and flexible weed management options. The development of food-grade hybrids will benefit both farmers and consumers with special needs and will provide a safe food source for people with celiac disease and a special market outlet for sorghum products."

Other K-State researchers are also working with scientists from several universities and agencies to improve sorghum that is grown domestically and overseas. Much of that work has been funded by the International Sorghum and Millet Improvement Program (INTSORMIL), a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program.

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