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Illinois State University graduate student Maliheh Esfahanian and genetics professor John Sedbrook process pennycress as part of their research into use of the potential cover crop to produce biofuels and other products in his lab at the ISU Science Laboratory Building in Normal.

NORMAL — A plant called pennycress may start putting dollars into farmers' pockets while providing environmental and economic benefits.

Researchers at Illinois State University are involved in a pennycress project that recently received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its goal is to make pennycress — once viewed as a weed — a viable cover crop that can produce biodiesel, jet fuel and animal feed.

Pennycress has a 35 percent oil content and 19 percent protein, with the rest fiber, said John Sedbrook, professor of genetics at ISU. Soybeans have more protein but less oil, he explained.

Pennycress has about the same oil content as canola, which is a relative of pennycress.

Sedbrook and his team of researchers at ISU are using breeding and a gene editing technique called CRISPR to increase the protein content and decrease the fiber.

He said CRISPR (which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) simplifies plant breeding and makes it easier to identify and target gene mutations that make big improvements.

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ISU graduate research assistants Brice Jarvis, left, and Dalton Williams, look at pennycress plants that are part of their research.

Pennycress would be planted after corn is out of a field and then harvested before it's time to plant soybeans, said Sedbrook. Speeding up the rate at which pennycress matures is part of the research.

“It's pretty important to farmers that we get them out before it's time to plant soybeans,” he said.

CoverCress is domesticated pennycress and CoverCress Inc., a St. Louis-based crop development company, is part of the project. Western Illinois University is the lead institution for the group, which also includes researchers at the Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Platteville and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of it is a win-win,” said Sedbrook, who has been researching pennycress for about seven years.

The benefits include protecting soil from erosion and keeping nitrogen from running into streams while also bringing in an extra $50 an acre for farmers, he said.

“This will help with the bottom line for farmers and keep people in business,” said Sedbrook.

Planting pennycress also supports pollinators, suppresses weeds and diversifies the nation's energy sources, said Win Phippen, the WIU agriculture professor who is the main recipient of the grant.

“We're very excited to further refine this powerhouse crop as an alternative for our Midwest farmers,” said Phippen.

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Maliheh Esfahanian, an Illinois State University graduate student from Iran who is studying biology, examines a seed from dried pennycress plants in professor John Sedbrook's lab at the ISU Science Laboratory Building in Normal.

Maliheh Esfahanian, a doctoral students from Iran who is among five graduate students working with Sedbrook on the project, said, “It's been a great opportunity for me to work with cutting edge technology to manipulate the genome.”

Ten undergraduates also are gaining research experience.

Dalton Williams, a graduate student from Sullivan, said, “What's exciting is the potential it has for big change.”

Through his previous research, Sedbrook has already made key genetic changes to the seeds to make them more edible and nutritious.

Key next steps will be to scale up from research trials to field trials, then, once there is a commercially viable crop, finding companies to do the crushing and processing, said Sedbrook. He is meeting this week with a company he couldn't name that might be interested.

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John Sedbrook, Illinois State University genetics professor, compares bottles of processed pennycress as part of his research into use of the potential cover crop to produce biofuels and other products in his lab at the ISU Science Laboratory Building.

While the two main products would be biodiesel and jet fuel, the potential doesn't stop there.

“There are so many uses for the oil, from cosmetics to detergent to putting it on your salad,” Sedbrook said.

What's left after the oil is extracted can be used as animal feed, he added.

Money from the grant also will be used for outreach to farmers and the agriculture community, including work with 4-H programs through ISU's Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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