Missouri Researchers Finding New Ways to Enhance Crops for the Challenges of Tomorrow

Scientists at Missouri’s Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis, are hard at work researching new ways to enhance the crops of today in order to make a better tomorrow. Now, through gene editing techniques, they have a new task: to produce genetically strengthened Thlaspi arvense, commonly known as pennycress, for use in sustainable energy efforts.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a five-year, $13 million grant to the nationwide research project.

Danforth Center Principal Investigators Dmitri A. Nusinow, Ph.D., and Chris Topp, Ph.D., aim to increase pennycress’s tolerance to heat and drought through combining gene editing and traditional plant breeding techniques. They will focus on understanding and improving root system structure and function of pennycress, using X-ray CT imaging and a novel system developed in the Topp lab to grow and measure plants in field plot-sized containers outfitted with sensors in the greenhouse.

“One of the lessons we learned from the Green Revolution was that not enough attention was paid to root systems as new varieties were developed, resulting in a number of negative environmental consequences,” said Topp. “Here we get the opportunity to build a new crop from the ‘underground up’, that should improve agricultural sustainability, soil health, and turn a profit for growers in the bio-based fuels market.”

Some domesticated pennycress varieties can yield more than 1,500 pounds per acre of seeds, producing the potential for 65 gallons of oil per acre that can be converted into biodiesel and bio jet fuel. In addition to its use as a biofuel, pennycress provides ground cover to reduce soil erosion and can absorb excess fertilizer to prevent pollution.

“It is really exciting to work on the early domestication of a new crop, especially one that can help our energy needs, increase farmland productivity, and decrease topsoil loss and pollution,” said Nusinow. “We will apply new gene-editing methods and leverage the knowledge from pennycress’s close relative and research workhorse, Arabidopsis thaliana, to potentially make quick progress and big gains. The national scope of the project will bring a lot of great ideas together.”

Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. The research, education and outreach the center provides aims to position Missouri as a global leader in agtech.

What Next?