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From Weed to Cash: Researchers Genetically Engineer Pennycress

Pennycress in a field
Maliheh Esfahanian
Pennycress can be harvested for biodiesel production.

Illinois State University researchers are part of a team that’s creating a new crop that could help both the environment and farmers' bottom lines.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving them $10 million for research that will lead to the planting and harvesting of pennycress, a penny-shaped weed that grows in the spring, as a winter cover crop, which processors can then convert into fuel. 

“Pennycress has a number of natural attributes that makes it perfect for being a crop,” Illinois State University genetics professor John Sedbrook said on WGLT's Sound Ideas. “It has extreme cold tolerance, it soaks up the nitrogen so it keeps nitrogen from running into the streams to keep streams clean, and it’s related to canola.”

John Sedbrook with his students
Credit Illinois State University
John Sedbrook, left, with Dalton Williams, Taylor Suo, and Mali Esfahanian at ISU's Horticulture Center.

Cover crops tend to have more environmental than monetary value and provides soil health and natural benefits. Sedbrook and the research team are looking to change that. 

To achieve the goal of the project, researchers are using gene editing, called CRISPR, to change the very nature of the original plant.

“With CRISPR—this is game changing and going to improve our lives in a lot of different ways, not just crop improvement but treating human diseases. We’ve been able to apply CRISPR to rapidly improve pennycress genetically,” Sedbrook said.

With just two genetic changes, the team has been able to make pennycress oil and meal edible.

“Not only can we use it for food,” Sedbrook said, “we can also use it for making biodiesel or jet fuel. It’s really quite versatile. Another change we made was reducing the fiber content in the seed so the meal has the same nutritional value as canola … adding value to pennycress along with the breeding program to get the yields higher where now it’s economical.”

That means farmers can benefit off the cover crop, putting more money in their pockets during what Sedbrook calls a “challenging time in farming.”

Sedbrook also said converting the oil to biodiesel is not that difficult. With current technology and modern techniques a simple plant like pennycress can be converted to even jet fuel.

But what does it mean to domesticate a plant?

“In the past it took thousands of years for cavemen to wait for the right genetic change to come along,” Sedbrook said. “For wheat there is a handful of changes and for corn there are six changes they have identified that changed the weed teosinte into what we know as corn.”

It takes hundreds of thousands of years for evolutionary changes in plants. But with genetic science, changes can be made rapidly.

Sedbrook said the demand for the new strain of pennycress—called CoverCress—is already there.

“There’s the old saying build it and they’ll come," he said. "There are people just waiting for us to produce this oil and they’re ready to process it."

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Pennycress - long

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.