Named for its coin-shaped, oil-rich seedpods, pennycress has colonized much of the globe as a common weed. But those oily seeds, unsuitable for human consumption, are an ideal crop for biodiesel and jet fuels.

This fall, researchers at Washington State University are taking a closer look at the genetics and physiology of pennycress, as part of a multi-institutional, $12.9 million research project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and led by Illinois State University scientist John Sedbrook.

Their five-year goal: to help develop a winter cover crop that can thrive in the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Corn Belt, and beyond.

Karen Sanguinet, a crop physiologist and molecular geneticist in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, leads a $1.29 million subsidiary project at WSU, along with soil microbiologist Tarah Sullivan and extension agronomist Isaac Madsen.

They join collaborators at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Minnesota, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Ohio State University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Western Illinois University, and CoverCress, Inc., in efforts to improve oilseed genetics.

“Pennycress is an alternative crop that shows promise, both as an oilseed and as a cover crop that improves soil health and ecosystem services,” Sanguinet said. “Our goal is to identify adaptive genes that allow pennycress to survive in a range of environments and integrate into a suite of cropping systems.”

Native to Eurasia, pennycress is a member of the Brassica family, which includes canola and other oilseeds. Wild pennycress varieties are inedible, due to high levels of a fatty acid that happens to be desirable for conversion to jet fuel. Over the last few years, pennycress has been developed as a winter cover crop for the 80-million-acre U.S. Corn Belt, and is now being tested in other temperate regions, including the Pacific Northwest.

Naturally cold and flood-tolerant, pennycress helps improve soil health and natural soil processes, capturing nitrates that can leach into groundwater, suppressing the growth of spring weeds, and preventing erosion. With modification, pennycress can also be bred to have a similar oil profile to canola, with less of the fatty acids that make it unpalatable.

Launched in September, this new project will help define genetic traits that promote good yields, define oil content and profiles, and improve stress resilience for a changing climate.

The team will use gene editing and combining of desirable traits, sequencing of natural, beneficial genetic changes and mutations, as well as the study of traits, the transcriptome, and the metabolome—the complex web of chemicals that interact within living things—to build knowledge for breeding and crop development. Sanguinet expects that their findings will deliver a better understanding of basic oilseed biology to help improve related oilseed crops, such as canola and camelina.

“Pennycress has a fairly simple, sequenced genome, and it’s easy to transform for gene editing and functional genomics,” she said. “It has great potential both as a biofuel crop, and as an oilseed for human consumption and animal feed. Our work will help build a foundation of resources for the broader pennycress community, and support breeding efforts for more sustainable crops.”