Calgary (Rural Roots Canada)—An innovator is working to further develop Pennycress, turning it from a plant commonly known as a weed into a versatile oilseed and cover crop.

Pennycress has long been considered a weed; however, work is now underway to take this crop and develop and raise awareness about its ability to be a versatile oilseed and cover crop.

The Pennycress Company believes the plant’s possibilities are vast. It can be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, and the seeds can be sold as livestock feed and to bio-refineries and other industries.

The company’s Founder and CEO, Dr. Jason Thomas, says his journey to Pennycress started when he was a PhD student at the University of Minnesota.

“I first worked on making the flowers larger to produce more nectar for pollinators like bees by using gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, then I kept working on this crop as a post-doc at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford, but I took more of a computer programming approach to biology and also was looking at drought tolerance in this plant,” says Thomas.

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After spending considerable time on the plant, he knew he wanted his work to be done in the world rather than sitting on a laboratory shelf.

“That’s when I started the Pennycress Company. I bootstrapped it for one year, using all of my post-doc savings to get me here where I am now at Thrive. We’re currently finding some funding, so this Pennycress project is actually coming to fruition.”

Thomas says the plant commonly grows as a weed on the roadside in Canada and the U.S. and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

“It is related to canola. So much like that plant, you can grind up the seeds and use the oil for cooking oil like canola, but also for things like animal feed, biodiesel, and sustainable aviation fuel.

Thomas adds it is also a cover crop, so it could be planted between broadacre crop seasons, such as corn and soybeans.

This would allow farmers to get profit from those cash crops, but then also for the harvested pennycress seeds.

He says one of the most fascinating things about the plant is its ability to survive in harsh conditions in Canada, such as polar vortices and drought.

“For drought, there are some preliminary experiments that I’ve done in my post-doc where we found that if you grow pennycress for about 10 days, and then if you stop watering it for 19, the plants that come back to life, which is like 80 per cent of them, have the same yields as the plant that didn’t undergo any drought stress at all. I think that’s very promising, but there’s still more work to be done.”

Thomas presented during the SVG Thrive Academy Demo day in Calgary this past spring.