CREVE COEUR, Mo. – A biotech startup here is trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been done since the middle of the last century. Researchers are trying to turn what currently amounts to a weed – in this case, pennycress – into a viable commodity crop for farmers. And they hope to do it before the end of this decade.
“It’s been a long time since a wild strain was domesticated,” said Dennis Plummer, one of the founders of Arvegenix. “Even for some of the recent domestications, it took decades.”
Indeed, the last plant to make a similar jump was the soybean, which originated several thousand years ago in China. Outside of China, the plant spent the vast majority of its life as little more than a novelty. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it began its ascent to its current position as one of the world’s largest grain crops. And even then, it didn’t become a staple of U.S. farms until the 1950s.
It would be asking a lot to expect pennycress to enjoy the same level of success. Still, this member of the mustard seed family does have a lot working in its favor.
The plant’s seeds have the potential to be solid oil producers, while leftover meal can be used to make livestock feed. But its strongest trait may be the fact that it grows in the winter, when most Midwestern fields are empty.
Arvegenix envisions a crop rotation where pennycress fits in between a typical corn/soybean rotation, giving farmers an extra growing season.
“If we can fit into that window when nothing else is growing, that’s the definition of sustainability,” said Jerry Steiner, the new chief executive of the 2-year-old biotech startup, which has 11 employees, with more than half working for equity in the company in lieu of salaries.
The sustainability feature is one of things that helped the company in snagging a $100,000 investment by Yield Lab, an accelerator for agribusinesses. Yield Lab, founded last year, recently named Arvegenix among the five companies in its initial investment program, which includes mentoring and a business development program.
“There aren’t many crops that can grow in the winter,” said Matt Plummer, Yield Lab program manager and son of the Arvegenix founder. “We’re not increasing land acres to grow anything. And we aren’t taking anything away from the food supply.”
This is also why the crop has been pushed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its quest for new biofuel sources.
All, however, is not perfect with this spindly plant and the tiny seeds it produces.
The biggest problem is that farmers can’t make money growing it. At least not yet.
That’s where Arvegenix has its focus at the moment, using advanced breeding technology to nudge the plant toward something better than it is today. A plant needs to be more predictable, more consistent and one that produces a higher oil yield.
Within 4 years, researchers hope to have a version that could break even. From there, it should have no trouble attracting the attention of farmers, said Dennis Plummer, a former Monsanto executive.
“I’m sure not every farmer will want to plant it,” he said. “But they’re all interested.”
That Arvegenix has taken up the pennycress cause is welcome news to Winthrop Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Western Illinois University.
Phippen has been working with pennycress since 2009. He’s traveled across the country, collecting samples for a seed collection and cataloging various traits. He’s found it growing as far south as the Missouri-Arkansas border and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska.
He’s been doing his own breeding but says traditional breeding – without the aid of molecular technologies – is considerably slower than what Arvegenix should be able to accomplish.
“They’ll be able to speed up the process,” Phippen said.
He sees other obstacles down the line, including the inevitable pest and disease issues faced by all crops. And there’s the fact that some states, including Michigan — a likely hotbed of pennycress farming – still classify the plant as a weed. That would have to change if the plant is going to be grown and sold as a crop, he said.
But having a company dedicate itself to the plant should bode well for its future.
“Every crop needs a champion,” Phippen said.