$10m DOE grant to help boost camelina oilseed yield

Genomic approach could cut research time in half.

Commercial airlines and the military both have successfully used camelina oil blends to fly airplanes. Since camelina is not a significant food crop, why doesn’t the oilseed plant compete with petroleum products? The answer is its small yields.

Michigan State University will lead a $10 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to explore ways to boost the yield of this promising biofuel crop.

“Current seed oil-based bioproduction relies heavily on food crop species such as soybean, sunflower and canola oil,” Michigan State plant biologist and grant coordinator Danny Schnell said. “Camelina doesn’t require as much water as these crops, it grows quicker, and it has a higher resistance to pest and disease. By focusing on some key genetic control points, we’re hoping to unlock the relationship between carbon capture and increasing oil and seed production.”

Schnell is part of an interdisciplinary team -- which includes Michigan State scientists Erich Grotewold and Yair Shachar-Hill -- that will study camelina’s metabolic and gene expression networks. Together, the scientists will generate metabolic models to predict how the plant is converting sucrose, the product of photosynthesis, which eventually produces oil. The team’s overall goal is to achieve up to a 300% increase per acre in oil production.

Traditional breeding approaches could take as long as 20 years to produce positive results. Taking a genomic approach could cut that time in half, Schnell said.

Compared to canola, camelina has a smaller genome, and it’s easier to study and engineer. Identifying which genes control key mechanisms should be less complicated than unraveling the genetic control panel of canola. Camelina also serves as a model plant, meaning it’s genetically similar to other important oil-producing crop plants.

“Once we understand its structure, we’ll be able to share it with other researchers working with different plants,” Schnell said. “This will give them the architecture and vital genetic targets in the areas they research, such as how their plants’ metabolic and genetic programs respond to changes in the environment.”

Along with aeronautical fuel, camelina oil can be used in a number of other bioproducts, including nutritional and potential pharmaceutical, cosmetic and other products.

Additionally, it can be grown on agriculturally marginal lands, requires less fertilizer and doesn’t take special equipment to be planted or harvested. This should appeal to farmers, who’ll be able to add camelina to their crop rotation with existing agricultural implements and practices.

Heike Sederoff with North Carolina State University and Kristi Snell with Yield10 Bioscience will be part of the research team as well.

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