Accelerating the domestication of Kernza with genomics: Kernza is the commercial name for Thinopyrum intermedium (common name: intermediate wheatgrass). Traditional breeding efforts at The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota have made fast improvements over the first 10 years of breeding. Modern molecular and genomic tools offer great promise to improve the rate of improvement in plant breeding, even in difficult systems. In 2015, Kevin and his postdoc advisor, Jesse Poland, along with collaborators Lee DeHaan (The Land Institute) and Steve Larson (USDA-ARS), wrote a successful DOE Joint Genome Institute Community Science Program grant to sequence the genome of intermediate wheatgrass. This project has developed an annotated chromosome-scale assembly for Kernza and is being used to implement a suite of modern breeding tools, along with enabling functional genomic studies to understand mechanisms underlying key agronomic traits.
The genomic landscape of perenniality: Kevin is the PI on a USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellowship entitled ‘Exploring the genomic landscape of perenniality within the Triticeae’, awarded in 2017. Currently, there is only a nascent understanding of the complex genetics of perenniality across the plant kingdom, which has limited the development of vigorous perennial crops that produce consistent yields year to year and limited the perennialization of annual crop species.An improved understanding of the genomic landscape of the annual vs. perennial growth habit could enable the development of other robust perennial crop species, like IWG, suitable for wide scale production. This project will provide an enhanced understanding of the complex suite of genes underlying perenniality will enable the improvement of current perennial biomass and grain crops, along with providing vital resources to address the long-standing goal of ‘perennializing’ annual crops like rice, wheat, and sorghum. Additionally, unraveling the genome evolution within the Thinopyrum genus will improve our basic knowledge regarding the sources of novel traits introgressed from Thinopyrum species into wheat.
Genomics-guided domestication of pennycress: As a graduate student, Kevin spearheaded efforts to develop the first genomic tools for pennycress in order to drive a mutation breeding program. He was the first author on papers describing assemblies of the pennycress transcriptome, Dorn et al (2013) in The Plant Journal, and genome, Dorn et al (2015) in DNA Research.
Agricultural biotechnology policy: During his PhD, Kevin worked with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, including Nick Jordan, to explore potential new models for evaluating the use of biotechnology in agriculture. This work was recently published in EMBO Reports (Jordan and Dorn et al (2017)).
Domestication and commercialization of new crops: In both his PhD and postdoc research, Kevin worked on the domestication of new crop species. He was involved in several publications reviewing the ongoing work in perennial grains and oilseeds (Kantar et al (2016) in Annual Reviews of Plant Biology), commercialization of pennycress (Jordan et al (2016) in Elementa), and broad strategies for choosing new candidate crops for domestication (DeHaan et al (2016) in Crop Science).
Genomics of invasive plant species: Kevin is a Co-PI on a Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plant and Pests Center funded project to develop assays to identify Palmer Amaranth in seed mixtures. As a part of this team, he is directing next-generation sequencing approaches for molecular marker development along with examining several basic questions regarding the biology of Amaranthus species.