Dr. John Sedbrook, a professor of genetics at Illinois State University, is in the midst of a project that may prove to be the most important research of his career. Sedbrook and a team of researchers—comprised of faculty and students—are working to rapidly domesticate pennycress using cutting-edge genetic approaches. If successful, pennycress, sometimes called a wonder weed, could become a commercially grown oilseed-producing cover crop with the potential to be an economic benefit to farmers and an environmental gift to the world.
Thlaspi arvense, commonly known as pennycress or field pennycress, is a non-food member of the mustard family that’s been mostly ignored by farmers. However, if Sedbrook and company are successful in their efforts, that view may change. The importance of pennycress is in part due to its potential to produce billions of gallons of biofuels while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows. In addition, winter planting of pennycress could lessen soil erosion and nutrient runoff, a major source of pollution in the Mississippi River basin, which cuts a massive swath through the middle of the country.
A trio of Illinois State researchers—Professor of Water Ecology Dr. Bill Perry, Assistant Professor of Crop Science Dr. Nicholas Heller, and Professor of Soil Science Dr. Rob Rhykerd—is at work on that part of the project. The results of their efforts could have a lasting impact that is felt from here in the Midwest all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
This project, known as Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience (IPREFER), is a team effort by multiple institutions across several Midwestern states and is being funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy that total $23 million. Partner institutions, in addition to Illinois State, include: Western Illinois University; University of Minnesota; The Ohio State University; Southern Illinois University Carbondale; University of Wisconsin-Platteville; CoverCress Inc., a crop-development company in St. Louis; and Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, an ag-related nonprofit based in Minnesota.
A main objective of the project, according to the IPREFER website, is to create and deploy “a suite of agronomic management projects across the region that will result in pennycress being incorporated into the predominant corn and soybean rotation and in a range of
high-valued rotational crops.”
Pennycress grows late in the year and is harvested in the spring, perfect timing for traditional crop rotation in a region where farmers harvest corn in the fall and plant soybeans in the spring. A crop of pennycress planted each winter could yield extra income for farmers from land—estimated to be around 80 million acres—that is otherwise ignored until spring planting.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, pennycress produces seeds containing twice the oil of soybeans. That oil “can be extracted and converted to high quality biodiesel fuel while the remaining de-oiled presscake biomass can be converted to other energy products.” Thus, in pennycress, there is great potential for less reliance on fossil fuels.
An important objective of the IPREFER group involves community outreach and education. With a project so far-reaching in its possible implications, why would outreach and education be a priority? Part of the impetus, according to IPREFER, “is to train farmers, workers, and scientists,” but it’s also to highlight new career opportunities for youth who will eventually join the workforce.
Matthew Hagaman, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instructional designer in Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST) said there are multiple reasons why outreach is so important.
“For one, because in the field of agriculture, there are a lot of new developments and new crops that people don’t hear about,” Hagaman said. “And, it’s an opportunity to bring youth into ag.”
Hagaman and a small team were regulars this past summer at 4-H fairs, fine arts fairs, county fairs, and at the Illinois State Fair. At the bigger venues, like the state and county fairs, they hosted STEM booths as part of an effort to meet younger students in the middle school age group. The group’s efforts target a range of ages, but younger students are an important demographic.
“When you have middle school students thinking of careers in modern agriculture, there’s more to it than just driving a tractor in the field,” Hagaman said. “There’s maintenance, and somebody builds and designs the tractor. There’s everything the tractor is dropping and spraying.”
Emily Schoenfelder is a 4-H youth development educator with the University of Illinois Extension and a member of the IPREFER outreach team. She said fairs are crucial to helping 4-H kids learn what they’re interested in. She also said the 4-H Cover Crop Science project book is an important tool.
“When we say book, it could be digital, but 4-H projects run all year long and culminate with a showcase at fairs before judges,” Schoenfelder said, noting that the book is aimed at middle school students. “About 75 percent of students who work on projects do come to the fairs, and they show up and display their projects to the public and then sit down with a judge to discuss their work.”
Winnie Kimani, M.S. ’21, is an Illinois State graduate student from Kenya studying project management and is a member of the IPREFER Education & Outreach team as part of her graduate assistant duties in CeMaST. She contributes to the project in a number of ways, including revising, editing, and publishing the 4-H project book.
She also worked the fairs and art shows with Hagaman helping spread the word about the many uses for pennycress. The lesson plan included highlighting the benefits of pennycress while teaching participants how to make pennycress ink. The events were well attended with participants ranging in age from 4-18, Kimani said, adding that she loves being involved with the project. Her favorite part is when parents join the kids for an activity.
“Seeing the kids amazed and happy once they figure out how to make the ink is the most exciting part,” she said. “Additionally, seeing their interest in learning is really satisfying.”
Gary Derwin, a senior majoring in technology and engineering education at Illinois State, also joined Hagaman on outreach road trips to regional fairs and shows. Derwin took part in the ink-making demos and said the activity helps educate on several levels.
“By creating ink, children get to practice their scientific literacy by measuring and weighing the different parts of the ink,” he said. “When older children or adults make the ink, they get to practice those same skills while learning about pennycress.”
Derwin said many of the people who come to the events and ask questions are farmers trying to learn more about pennycress. He said it’s an opportunity to inform the public about alternative crops that are being developed and researched.
“Interaction with the community is always my favorite part,” Derwin said.
Dr. Rebekka Darner, associate professor of biology education at Illinois State and director of CeMaST, is part of IPREFER’s executive leadership team. She said there are a number of Illinois State students—both undergraduate and graduate—working on the IPREFER project.
“They get in-depth, hands-on experience and draw connections across teams and learn how their research is connected,” Darner said. “It demonstrates to young novice scientists that most research is interdisciplinary and that we need communication across different teams and different disciplines to accomplish our goals.”
Darner added that the IPREFER internship program is led by Dr. Mary Brakke at the University of Minnesota.
“The recruiting is done nationally, and only 10-12 students are invited to do research with one of the teams for the summer,” Darner said.
Brakke, who is also a member of the Education & Outreach team, said a sense of cooperation is emphasized to the summer interns.
“The goal is to provide research in methodology and introduce students to interdisciplinary research and provide technical training,” Brakke said. “Students are introduced to the abilities that are needed to succeed. For example, these are collaborative, large projects where communication is a key component.”
Brakke holds weekly meetings so that interns feel less isolated and learn something beyond the work that is the focus of their summer research.
“They don’t have an understanding of the larger scope of the project, so the goal of our meetings is to meet other partners on the team,” she said. “For example, a student might be working with Sedbrook in his lab on pennycress, but in our Zooms they get introduced to agronomy, field breeding, supply management, eco systems, research production, and agronomy teams. This way they get to see the interaction between different team members.”
Going forward, the outreach team is continuing its efforts to educate the public—youth and adults—about pennycress. New curricula are being developed with the aim of drawing more students to college ag programs. To that end, Hagaman’s outreach extends to two-year colleges. He also continues to reach out to 4-H and FFA students, with a goal of seeing some of those students grow their own pennycress crop in the near future.
Sedbrook, the engine driving all things pennycress, is paying close attention and grateful for all the efforts put forth by so many team members on so many fronts. Even hunkered down in his lab, he appreciates how vital it is to get the word out.
“The education and outreach components of our pennycress project are crucial to raising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of this new oilseed cash cover crop,” Sedbrook said. “Not only do these activities promote adoption of this new crop, they also are important in training the next generation of farmers and other stakeholders who will be growing the crop, processing the seeds, and using the related food, feed, and fuel products.”