Crop Biotech Update

Scientists Use CRISPR to Turn Pennycress into an Oilseed Crop

October 20, 2022

Scientists at Illinois State University are working to turn the weed pennycress into a cold-tolerant, short-season oilseed similar to Camelina. In some ways, the process echoes the development of its plant relative, canola.

John Sedbrook, a professor of genetics at Illinois State University, and his colleagues are using CRISPR gene editing technology to modify pennycress. Like canola's rapeseed ancestors, pennycress suffers from high levels of antinutritional erucic acid in the oil and high levels of glucosinalates, particularly one called sinigrin, in the meal. This limits the value of pennycress as animal feed. Raw glucosinalate-containing plants have enzymes that break them down into toxic products in the body. While heating deactivates this enzyme, the glucosinalates can add an off taste to products such as milk, for example, if dairy cattle are fed rapeseed meal. Despite these challenges, the researchers brought the plant from weed to domesticated crop in about 10 years, remarkably fast, Sedbrook said, crediting tools such as gene editing. Sedbrook reports that they have already reduced erucic acid and fiber, which improved the quality of the meal, and the oil quality has been improved as well. Now they are working on the glucosinalate.

The domesticated pennycress is now marketed as Covercress, a cold-tolerant, short-season oilseed that yields about 32 percent oil content and 20 percent protein in the meal, similar to camelina. Its seeds are golden in color, easily distinguishing it from the black seeds of wild pennycress, and are about the same size as camelina. Test fields in Illinois have delivered 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre, which beats camelina's 1,800 to 2,200 lb per acre.

For more details, read the article in The Western Producer.

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