Illinois State researcher gets funding to develop pennycress genetic resources

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In Illinois, Illinois State Associate Professor of Genetics John Sedbrook is collaborating on a $1 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop genetic resources that can be used to rapidly domesticate field pennycress as a new winter annual oilseed cover crop.

Illinois State University’s portion of the grant is $367,021, and the grant period runs through August 2017. Sedbrook, who is a faculty member in the School of Biological Sciences, is working with Professor David Marks, from the University of Minnesota, and Professor Win Phippen, from Western Illinois University.

Pennycress holds considerable agronomic and economic potential due to its extreme cold tolerance and natural ability to produce copious amounts of seeds high in oil and protein content. Pennycress is planted in the fall near the time of corn harvest, over-wintering as a cover crop to reduce nitrogen runoff and soil erosion, and harvested the following spring in time for planting soybeans.

Field studies suggest that pennycress could produce as much as 2,000 pounds of seed per acre, yielding 80 gallons of oil per acre that could be converted to jet fuels, biodiesel, and a variety of industrial products including soaps and cosmetics. However, wild strains of pennycress do not always grow uniformly, so Sedbrook and colleagues are working to improve seed germination and crop establishment.

Pennycress seedpods also break open easily, resulting in about 20 percent of the seeds falling to the ground before they can be harvested. Students in Sedbrook’s lab have already genetically fixed the so-called pod shatter problem in pennycress.

New genetic tools, along with a large body of scientific knowledge and this USDA funding, will allow the researchers to make additional genetic improvements to pennycress. The goal is to domesticate and commercialize pennycress on a time scale of years instead of the hundreds to thousands of years it took to domesticate corn and soybeans.