Turning a weed into a profit-yielding crop

Writer(s): 
(Photo: Getty Images)

COLUMBUS, Ohio—People who garden may know about pennycress. 

It’s also called “stinkweed” for the odor it gives off when it’s crushed.

Unlike most weeds, pennycress seeds contain a lot of oil, and that oil can be turned into fuel for jets or diesel trucks and cars. 

Two researchers at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) just began a study to create the most resilient, high-yielding varieties of pennycress for farmers to grow. 

Planted in late fall and harvested in spring, pennycress could offer dual benefits to farmers. It could protect their fields from erosion in fall and winter. And it could lead to extra money in spring when harvested and sold.

“It’s been said that weeds are just plants out of place. So, if pennycress proves to be desirable to have around, it may lose its identity as a weed,” said Alex Lindsey, one of the two CFAES researchers involved in the study. 

Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Lindsey and Andrea Gschwend, also an assistant professor in CFAES, will improve the genetic makeup of pennycress to develop pennycress varieties that can endure drought and flood conditions.

During winter, pennycress will need to survive with little to no water when the ground is frozen, and a lot of water during spring rainstorms. 

“The appeal of this is a farmer would be able to add a crop to their field rotation,” Gschwend said. “They can harvest pennycress and then plant soy and corn on those same fields. It shouldn’t compete.”

The study Gschwend and Lindsey are doing is funded by a $13 million grant divided up among nine institutions, including Ohio State. 

Some pennycress varieties can yield 65 gallons of oil per acre, which can be converted into jet fuel. Pennycress is among many other plants, including corn, that can undergo fermentation and then be used to produce fuel.

Besides being able to convert pennycress into fuel, ground-up pennycress seed can be eaten by animals as well as people. Since pennycress contains erucic acid and other ingredients that can make it hard for animals and people to digest, the seed has been genetically modified to reduce those ingredients. 

“There are efforts to get rid of those and other weedy traits to make pennycress more desirable in the field,” Gschwend said. 

(CFAES researchers are working on the pennycress study along with Illinois State University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Minnesota, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory EMSL, Western Illinois University, and Washington State University.)

Writer(s): 
Alayna DeMartini
614-292-9833
For more information, contact: 

Andrea Gschwend
gschwend.2@osu.edu
614-292-2014

Alex Lindsey
lindsey.227@osu.edu
614-292-3864