Officially, it is known as pennycress, and it springs up all over the Midwest – a seemingly unremarkable weed, with a circular arrangement of leaves that makes it look a bit like dandelion plant.
Although it’s not particularly odoriferous, some call it the “stinkweed.”
Yet despite that inglorious moniker, there’s an awful lot to like about pennycress, say officials with one St. Louis startup company. That’s because pennycress seeds –five to seven thousand of them in a given plant – have the potential to produce the world’s next big biofuel, in addition to providing protein feed for livestock, benefiting the environment and providing an added source of revenue for farmers.
Biofuel made from pennycress seeds, “could end up in your tank, if you drive a diesel powered car or truck,” says Jerry Steiner, the chief executive of the two-year-old plant science startup Arvegenix. “We clearly could also make jet fuel, and provide the feedstock for some bio-based lubricants as well.” That’s why some U.S Department of Agriculture researchers have been touting pennycress as it champions new biofuel choices.
For all of that to happen though, pennycress must first be domesticated. That is, turned into a viable commodity crop for farmers. And that, says Steiner, “is what we aim to do.”
Launched in May of 2013, Arvegenix is focusing on the development, genetic improvement and commercialization of field pennycress. Earlier this year, Arvegenix received a boost when it earned a $100,000 equity investment from The Yield Lab, a new St. Louis-based agriculture technology accelerator program.
The Arvegenix team – many of whom are former Monsanto executives — aims to turn pennycress into a beneficial crop scientifically and rapidly, through modern breeding techniques.
“We’ve collected pennycress from a number of locations across the country,” says Steiner. “We have the ability to cross the right parents and create the next generation (of pennycress) with more yield potential than any of the wild strains effectively have shown. It’s the same thing that happened thousands of years ago with crops that we know today, like corn, wheat or soybeans. It’s really the same process. People saw something in nature and liked it and started crossing to improve it. The difference that we have, of course, is that the tools that we have available are vastly superior, and therefore we can make more rapid progress.”
Pennycress is a winter crop, planted on land where farmers rotate between corn and soybeans. Seeds are spread in August by airplane, while corn stalks are still growing on the same field. Pennycress continues to grow after the corn is harvested, when that land is idle, thereby providing farmers with a revenue-generating cover crop. “Once we harvest the pennycress,” says Steiner, “farmers plant soybeans, often the same day. That way, the farmer is getting three crops in two years.”
Steiner says 1500 pounds of harvested pennycress can produce about 40 gallons of fuel. But he adds, “it’s not just about how many gallons of fuel you get. The ability to use the remainder as nutritional livestock feed is important. The benefit of having a cover crop that’s protecting the soil and holding on to the nutrients is significant. We’re trying to do three things here. We’re trying to help improve the sustainability and the environmental performance of the corn and soybean rotation that’s prevalent out there, and do it in a way that earns the farmer and our investors a return, as well as producing something valuable for society in a low carbon intensive fuel. That’s the triple bottom line effect that we have built into this idea.”
Steiner says it’s no accident Arvegenix lists St. Louis, with its strong plant science ecosystem, as its home. “It would be very difficult if not impossible for a company like ours to start anywhere else. We have the benefit of local capital that understands this type of businesses and also Monsanto as a potential collaborator. As well, we can tap into the expertise of members of our management team that retired from Monsanto. With the Danforth Plant Science Center having research capabilities, with greenhouses and growth chambers, that’s a big advantage. We couldn’t afford the time or money to build our own greenhouses and growth chambers from scratch. More and more local investors are really interested in this. It’s something they can touch and see and it’s run by people they know.”
Steiner says there’s a lot of untapped potential in the farm fields of middle America. “Where we fit is on land that’s coming from corn and going into soybeans,” says Steiner. “Basically if you take Illinois from its north to its south points, then go east to the eastern end of Ohio and west to Nebraska – that’s 35 million acres that fits this. So there’s a lot of land that’s suitable for this idea.”
At least one website has called the concept of transforming field pennycress into a renewable energy source and animal feed crop potentially the biggest Midwest agricultural innovation since mechanization and the hybridization of plants.
If it happens, pennycress, or the “stinkweed” – with help from a St. Louis startup — almost certainly will have earned its way out of that inglorious nickname.