For Immediate Release

Nebraska Food for Health Center Maps Sorghum Genes Controlling The Human Gut Microbiome

Development allows plant breeders to harness natural genetic variation in crops to breed new crop varieties that improve human health by promoting beneficial bacteria in the human gut.

Nebraska Food for Health Center scientists from the Schnable and Benson labs including (left to right) Dr. Chenyong Miao, Dr. Qinnan "Bob" Yang, Dr. Zhikai Liang, and Dr. Mallory Van Haute examine sorghum plants at the Greenhouse Innovation Center on the  University of Nebraska's campus.

Diverse sorghum lines from around the globe growing in Lincoln, Nebraska as part of the Schnable Lab's ongoing research into the genes controlling differences in both agronomic performance and food quality traits.

White and brown sorghum flour samples. Brown flour varieties with intact versions of both the Tan1 and Tan2 genes stimulated the growth of a set of beneficial gut microbes.

Lincoln, Neb. (AgPR) Sept. 29, 2022 — Each of us walks around with trillions of living microbes in our gut. Our diet shapes the kinds and abundance of microbes living in our gut which are connected to our health and well-being. But as scientists learn more and more about which microbes are associated positive and negative impacts on human health, a key question has remained unanswered: "How do we change our own microbiomes?"

The answer may be in the food we eat. Different foods, made from different crops contain a variety of fibers, polyphenols and other natural compounds that can influence the abundance of different microbes within the human gut. Increasing our fiber intake by consuming whole grains vs food made from refined flour is one example. But what if different grains have different effects on our guts?

In a study from the laboratory of Dr. Andrew Benson that was led by Dr. Qinnan Yang, scientists at the Nebraska Food for Health Center demonstrate that natural genetic variation within crop plants can indeed play a major role in controlling growth of specific organisms in human gut microbiomes. In this study recently cited in nature communications (click to view) the researchers used sorghum, an ancient grain first domesticated in Africa that is grown and consumed around the world today. Sorghum is known to have a large number of bioactive models that can stimulate cells in the human body, including microbes in our gut. Dr. James Schnable, a member of the Nebraska Food for Health Center who studies corn and sorghum genetics provided grain from almost three hundred different kinds of sorghum. Dr. Yang made flour from each of these sorghum lines and used a new automated system to measure the impact of flour from each kind of sorghum on the human gut microbiome, the team applied the tools of quantitative genetic to identify parts of the sorghum genome that affect how the gut microbiomes of different human beings responded to being fed sorghum.

In two cases, Dr. Yang noticed that the same region of the sorghum genome that caused major changes in the human gut microbiome was also controlling differences in the color of the sorghum seeds and sorghum flour. The team was excited when they realized that these two parts of the genome contained two genes, called Tan1 and Tan2, that control the production of condensed tannins, a group of compounds that add flavor to red wine and dark chocolate. Sorghum varieties with intact versions of both the Tan1 and Tan2 genes had dark colored seeds and stimulated the growth of a set of microbes including Faecalibacterium, Roseburia and Christensennella while other sorghum varieties with mutations in either gene produced light colored seeds that failed to stimulate growth of these organisms. Beyond the excitement of identifying the actual genetic cause that can stimulate these organisms, the team was also energized by the fact that many studies show that these same organisms are quite beneficial for human health and are believed to help prevent conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

“It’s so cool to see effect of Mendelian genetics in a crop plant working like a charm on human gut microbiome,” said Dr. Yang. “It really isn’t just about tannin or even sorghum. Now that we’ve shown plant genes can control changes in the human gut microbiome, we can use our approach screen hundreds or thousands of samples of different crops. That makes it possible for plant breeding programs to harness natural genetic variation in crops to breed new crop varieties that improve human health by promoting beneficial bacteria in the human gut.” Dr. Benson added, “this is remarkable to see plant geneticists, microbiologists, and food scientists working together to develop and improve a new generation of traits in food crops aimed at reducing diseases.”

About the Nebraska Food for Health Center

The Nebraska Food for Health Center was launched in 2016 with a $5M gift to the University of Nebraska and the mission to improve human health by linking agriculture and food production to wellness and disease prevention through microbiome research. Driven by the knowledge that our gut microbiome eats the same food we eat, the Nebraska Food for Health Center employs modulation of the gut microbiome with specific food components (dietary modulation) as a primary means for linking agriculture and medicine. The center brings together researchers with expertise in the gut microbiome along with plant geneticists, chemists, statisticians and computational biologists to discover additional components and molecules in crop plants that can modulate the microbiome and develop new crops and functional foods

Learn more about the ongoing work of the center at

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Media Contact:
Jill Hochstein
Technical Project Manager
Nebraska Food for Health Center
(402) 472-5186

Scientific Contact:

Dr. Qinnan Yang
Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Food Science
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
(402) 314-4453



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