ISU researchers transform pennycress into a crop

By Illinois State University | October 01, 2020

Though farmers consider pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) nothing more than a weed, Illinois State Professor of Genetics John Sedbrook is working to change their perspective—and the plant itself. Sedbrook and his student researchers in the School of Biological Sciences are genetically modifying pennycress as part of a multistate, multi-institutional effort funded by a five-year, $10 million USDA grant and a $13 million Department of Energy grant.

The researchers are attempting to transform the plant into a commercially grown cover crop that would be a boon to farmers and the environment. The harvested plant would be processed into biofuel, jet fuel, animal feed, and other products.

“This would not only help the environment, but also produce oilseeds that farmers can sell in these economically challenging times,” Sedbrook said. “Plants like pennycress take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to grow. Instead of adding to carbon in the atmosphere by digging for fossil fuels, you’re taking carbon that’s already there. So it’s a zero-sum game.”

Domesticated pennycress could be grown as a cold-resistant, high-yield oilseed crop across the central United States, where nearly 80 million acres of land devoted to corn and soybeans sit dormant in the winter months. Sedbrook said the same process was used in the 1960s to convert rapeseed into canola oil, a relative of pennycress that is in widespread use today.

Illinois State researchers—Professor of Water Ecology Bill Perry, Assistant Professor of Crop Science Nicholas Heller, and Professor of Soil Science Rob Rhykerd—are investigating how planting pennycress on otherwise fallow fields could also help farmers reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, two factors that are imperiling water quality and aquatic life locally and as far downstream as the Gulf of Mexico.

This research has been ongoing for 10 years with the latest grant awarded in 2020. Illinois State researchers are currently working under the umbrella of the Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience (IPREFER) program with colleagues at Western Illinois University, the University of Minnesota, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and the St. Louis-based crop development company CoverCress Inc.



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