Till, Baby, Till – $13M DOE grant advances new high-value feedstock, pennycress

August 24, 2020 |

In Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a five-year, $13 million grant to a nationwide research project to genetically strengthen Thlaspi arvense, commonly known as pennycress, for use in sustainable energy efforts.

CoverCress is an unfunded co-participant in this work, and you can see CoverCress CEO Jerry Steiner’s overview of that technology here.

Together, Danforth Center Principal Investigators Dmitri A. Nusinow, Ph.D., and Chris Topp, Ph.D., aim to increase pennycress’s tolerance to heat and drought through combining gene editing and traditional plant breeding techniques. They will focus on understanding and improving root system structure and function of pennycress, using X-ray CT imaging and a novel system developed in the Topp lab to grow and measure plants in field plot-sized containers outfitted with sensors in the greenhouse.

Why Huge?

If you’ve noticed there’s a renewable diesel boom going on around the world, award yourself one point. If you’ve spotted any project developers relaxing over mint juleps while lovingly gazing over their front-end engineering designs, score one thousand points. Because most of the good ones are running around trying to source feedstock. And we’re running out of drains to scour, fish to squeeze, renderers to rob and soybeans to crush. Which makes environmentalists nervous that future increases in renewable diesel production will involve making orangutans homeless in a sort of simian version of the Grapes of Wrath, forcing them off their land in the name of progress.

Arriveth pennycress to the rescue. Camelina is another horse in that race. So is virgin timber and timber waste (but both are also problematic with environmentalists).

The nice thing about pennycress is that corn and soy isn’t grown in the winter, cover crops are sound farming practice, and pennycress is a terrific cover crop, that just happens to yield up to 65 gallons of oil per acre under ideal conditions. So, in the 30 million acre “pennycress belt” in the United States alone, think something like a 2 billion gallon addition to the feedstock pool, at the optimal end of yields. Netting our hard-pressed farmers or other investors something like an extra $70 per acre in net profits. We might add, while combatting soil erosion.

CoverCress CEO Jerry Steiner ticked off the benefits of the crop, thus:

Grower: $50-70/acre new cash margin, plus cover crop benefits including sequestering soil carbon

User: new scalable low carbon intensity feedstock for bio- and renewable diesel and jet, as well as for food and feed

Scalable: realistic potential for > 10M tons of oilseed production in US alone

Synergy: uses open land, existing farm and processing equipment in their off-seasons

What we are trying to do is to delve deep into the biology – how it grows and responds, including stressful environments. We hope to make large and holistic improvements. Not that it doesn’t have great attributes, it does. But we want harness that wildness and weediness because there’s going to be stress, and heat tolerance during flowering.

One other problem, too. Pennycress harvest, if late for any reason, has the potential to cross over into soy planting season. Big no-no, soy’s the main deal, no one’s going to risk the soy crop because of the cover crops’ harvest schedule.

So, the project aims to shift the time when pennycress is ready, through advanced genetics and breeding. As Nusinow explains, “We only need to rein it in a couple of weeks and it’s really compatible.”

The team

The DOE project is led by Illinois State University Professor of Genetics John Sedbrook who has been working for decades in the field and devoted years to domestication and improvement of the seed oil and protein from pennycress.

The pennycress backstory

A relative of canola, pennycress produces oilseed for food, animal feed and bioenergy. Some domesticated pennycress varieties can yield more than 1,500 pounds per acre of seeds, producing the potential for 65 gallons of oil per acre that can be converted into biodiesel and biojet fuel. In addition to its use as a biofuel, pennycress provides ground cover to reduce soil erosion and can absorb excess fertilizer to prevent pollution.

Pennycress is ideally positioned as both a cash and cover crop that can be planted over winter between rotations of corn and soybean. It can provide ecosystem services, such as reducing soil erosion and soaking up excess nitrogen fertilizer that otherwise pollutes our waterways – and it produces a valuable, high-quality oilseed – growing at a time when farmland is often bare. But many of the hardy traits that make it an effective weed adapted to many different environments need to be harnessed into a package that works for farmers and management of their main crops. The research team aims to accelerate that process using broad expertise and cutting-edge technology.

Things we especially like about pennycress, in terms of being confident of improvements? First of all, it’s early in its domestication, so we don’t have to worry about tripping over 3000 years of plant breeding efforts. Also, pennycress is a pretty close relative to arabidopsis, the typical model plant for biology labs — and, here’s a bonus, it’s a diploid, which makes it easier to breed and to do genetics work on than with more complex polyploids.

The Science backstory

Less important to pennycress specifically but no less interesting in the development of plant science, we have two principal investigators from Danforth, Chris Topp and Dmitri Nusinow, here collaborating at this scale for the first time.

Topp’s one of the Dr. Hades of plant biology, Lords of the Underworld of root systems, Kings of the Rhizosphere. Nusinow’s more of a topside, the part-of-the-plant-above-the-ground guy, Dr. Clock. If you’ve ever become sleepy around 3 in the afternoon, that’s your circadian rhythm and plants have one too, and understanding how plants run their clocks, without wearing watches, and using the plant’s understanding of time to improve plant performance, that’s Nusinow. So, you have top and bottom here, though it gets a little confusing because Dr. Topp specializes in the bottom side. In any case, it will be interesting to see how this collaboration progress — could be a model for more plants in the future.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“One of the lessons we learned from the Green Revolution was that not enough attention was paid to root systems as new varieties were developed, resulting in a number of negative environmental consequences,” said Topp. “Here we get the opportunity to build a new crop from the ‘underground up’, that should improve agricultural sustainability, soil health, and turn a profit for growers in the bio-based fuels market.”

“It is really exciting to work on the early domestication of a new crop, especially one that can help our energy needs, increase farmland productivity, and decrease topsoil loss and pollution,” said Nusinow. “We will apply new gene editing methods and leverage the knowledge from pennycress’s close relative and research workhorse, Arabidopsis thaliana, to potentially make quick progress and big gains. The national scope of the project will bring a lot of great ideas together.”

“We’re excited to be at the forefront of this collaboration involving top scientists from universities and labs around the country and the world,” said ISU’s Sedbrook, whose lab at Illinois State works to bring out positive genetic traits in plants for biofuel and bioenergy production while protecting the environment.

Other institutions taking part in the project include the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Minnesota, the DOE Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the DOE Pacific Northwest National Laboratory EMSL, Western Illinois University, Washington State University, and The Ohio State University.

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