Proso millet's strong suit is its ability to grow with less water per bushel produced than any other cereal crop - and even on poor-quality land. One of the earliest crops to be domesticated, archaeological evidence suggests the crop was first grown by farmers in Northern China more than 12,000 years ago. It then spread across Asia and Europe along the earliest trade routes, finally reaching North America with early European settlers.
The sequencing of the proso millet genome has enabled Dryland Genetics to use modern statistical genetic breeding tools to develop new, more productive varieties of proso millet. It also is anticipated that this new genome sequence will accelerate the development of varieties adapted to new regions.
“Living in Nebraska, the limits of the water supply are never far from my mind,” says Dr. James Schnable, one of the founders of Dryland Genetics and an author on the present study. “A lot of people have put a lot of time and effort into trying to make corn use less water while producing the same amount of grain. Our idea was to instead identify a crop that already uses water efficiently. It turns out it's much easier to make a water-use-efficient crop higher yielding than to make an existing high-yielding crop, like corn, use water more efficiently.”
Approximately 500,000 acres are planted with proso millet in the US each year, primarily in those portions of Colorado and Nebraska where farmers lack water for irrigation. Only six varieties have been developed in the past 30 years and only two of these – Huntsman and Sunup – are adapted to much of Colorado. The newly sequenced genome makes it straightforward to identify hundreds of thousands of genetic differences among diverse proso millet varieties collected fromall over the world, enabling Dryland Genetics to select lines to mate with each other to produce new varieties adapted to any particular part of the world, whether the High Plains of the United States, Inner Mongolia in China, or the Caspian Steppes of Ukraine.
Dryland Genetics Co-Founder Dr. Patrick Schnable explains, "This technique of genomic selection is being widely used in corn breeding to enhance the rate of genetic gain per year. Dryland Genetics has used genomic selection to achieve double-digit percent yield increases of proso millet in the High Plains."
"It is becoming increasingly urgent to develop new crops that can thrive in semi-arid conditions, given increasingly variable rainfall and competing demand for existing water from agricultural and urban use," Schnable adds.
Dipak Santra, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center says, “This will have a huge potential impact on the region's rural economy. Proso millet’s direct value to (the semi-arid High Plains of the United States) is $45 million/year, but considering its benefits to the dryland production systems, the total value of proso millet to the region’s economy could be closer to a billion dollars.”
Economically, proso millet’s future is bright: In North America and Europe, it is primarily used for bird seed and sees limited use as cattle feed but in some parts of the world, it is an important human food.
Proso millet has a high nutritive value similar to wheat, rice and corn; is gluten free; is easy to digest; and has a low glycemic index. Hence, the potential exists for much wider popularity .