Pennycress: Turning a Weed Into a Crop with Karen Sanguinet


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Contact Karen Sanguinet by email at or by phone at 509-335-3662.

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Karen Sanguinet. Karen is an Assistant Professor of Crop Physiology. She joined WSU and the Crop and Soil Sciences department in 2014, after a brief stint as an Assistant Professor at Iwate University in Japan. Her research program focuses on root development and temperate grasses as well as trying to understand the molecular mechanisms and traits underlying cold and drought tolerance in both crop and model plants. She teaches an undergraduate crop physiology course on how plants interact with the environment. Hello, Karen.

Karen Sanguinet: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, I was recently reading an article about Pennycress and its potentials on alternative oilseed. And as a wheat scientist, that kind of caught my attention because I’ve spent a little bit of time trying to control that particular little weed in wheat. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about pennycress.

Karen Sanguinet: Sure. Absolutely. I’d be happy to. So, pennycress has been very rapidly domesticated in the Midwest corn-belt and is of interest because of its relatedness to canola and camelina. But it’s a diploid. It’s like canola and camelina. Has a high, high oil content in the seed, and high protein content. However, it does have a lot of erucic acid which makes it not very palatable. But we can through gene editing and, and mutation, change the oil profile to be very similar to canola.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And you said diploid.

Karen Sanguinet:  Yeah.

Drew Lyon: Is that, what does that mean for our listeners who don’t know that term? And how does that differ from canola and camelina?

Karen Sanguinet:  So, canola and camelina are tetraploid plants, meaning that they have for, for each gene in the genome, instead of having two alleles or two copies like a diploid, they have four. So, it makes breeding and selecting for certain traits and oil profiles just more genetically complicated and more difficult. So, you know, if you try to translate research from a model plant, a model brassica like Arabidopsis to something like camelina or canola, it’s often not a one-for-one relationship between the gene and the oil profile. So, for example, if you modify a single gene in Arabidopsis and see a change in an oil profile in Arabidopsis, and you try to modify that same gene in canola, it won’t necessarily do the same thing. Or there might be genetic redundancy built in because it has an extra set of chromosomes.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And, and pennycress is a diploid. And so, it’s easier to work with than —

Karen Sanguinet: Right. And it’s essentially in the Midwest been domesticated in about 10 years.

Drew Lyon: Oh, okay. Interesting. The other thing I think the article mentioned was that the — it’s used sometimes as a cover crop. Can you, can you tell me a little bit about how or why it was developed as a cover crop?

Karen Sanguinet:  Sure. So, pennycress is either a winter or spring annual. But it’s very flooding and cold tolerant. So, it does really well with a fall planting, and then spring flowering. It’s not very heat tolerant. But it’s been shown to help ecosystem services in soil health by preventing runoff and nutrient leaching, soil erosion, and cutting disease cycles. And so, it’s been used rather effectively in corn-soybean rotations in the Midwest as a cover crop. And actually, that’s the main use. And the main idea is that we would do a fall planting with pennycress, harvest it in spring, and then have another crop that summer.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Karen Sanguinet: If we can squeeze it in. But you know there’s, there’s a lot of selection to be done, yet. So.

Drew Lyon: Oh, okay. So, I often have growers say something like for a, a weed like Italian ryegrass or Russian thistle is very prevalent and very difficult to control. We should figure out some way of making this a crop. But that’s exactly what you’re trying to do with pennycress here. You’re trying to turn a weed into a crop. So, so, what traits are necessary for so-called domestication, or what are some of the challenges of doing that?

Karen Sanguinet: So, I would say starting with the seed, the first thing is seed dormancy. So, most weeds in wild populations are the seeds are relatively dormant. And so, we need, to find a way to make the seeds less dormant or to break dormancy. That’s probably the first thing. And that’s one of the things we’re, we’re working on and working towards in this project with, with our network of collaborators. The other thing is emergence. So, I mean, basically, all the things that you look at and measure in a crop, we, you have to select for in pennycress. So, germination, emergence, establishment, also, early flowering. We need to select for earlier flowering and make sure that it flowers. And of course, like any crop, you need to make sure yield is good and the seed size is of adequate size, to harvest and process for oil or whatever your end use is.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, quite a number of factors you need to work on. [ laughter ] Okay. So, you mentioned this project. And I guess that’s the other reason for having you on is that I read that you were recently awarded a large multi-institutional grant to work on pennycress from the Department of Energy. So, can you tell us a little bit about the project and the team here at WSU and beyond WSU?

Karen Sanguinet: Sure. So, this project is really to evaluate pennycress resilience and determine the underlying genes and alleles that contribute to climate resilience and adaptation. And at WSU, it’s a team. I’m leading the team with our soil microbiologist, Dr. Tarah Sullivan. And she’s looking at how the soil microbiome contributes to stress tolerance. And our field agronomist, our oilseed agronomist Isaac Madsen, who’s looking at a lot of the agronomics. And we’re going to be doing a lot of comparative work between pennycress, camelina, and canola. Because ideally, you know, it would just be another, another option, for farmers in the PNW. We are building on the foundation though that was, that’s been laid in the Midwest. And Doctor John Sedbrook from Illinois State University is spearheading the project. He’s the Project Lead. And then, we have collaborators David Marx and Ratan Chopra at the University of Minnesota. Dmitri Nusinow and Chris Topp at the Danforth Plant Science Center. Andrea Gshwend at Ohio State University. Win Phippen at Western Illinois. Katherine Frels at Minnesota. Also, a couple of other researchers, Sue Ree and Moi Esprianza at, at the Carnegie at Stanford. So, it’s, it’s a very big. I should also mention two national labs. Pacific Northwest National Labs, Pubudu Handakumbura is spearheading efforts there. And Dan Jacobson at Oak Ridge National Labs doing a lot of the climate modeling.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Karen Sanguinet: And bioinformatics. So, it’s a very large group. [ laughter ]

Drew Lyon: It is a very large group. And as you said, it’s kind of started in the Midwest. How did, how did WSU, here in Washington? What got you brought into the project?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, I was interested. I connected with a researcher at the University of North Texas, Ana Alonso, who works on the oil properties of pennycress. She works on alternative oilseeds. And she’s kind of a fatty acid biochemist. And she and I had the opportunity, I heard her seminar and we had the opportunity to spend the evening together and go for dinner as, as you do with seminar speakers. And she said well, nobody’s working on pennycress roots. And you know, you should work on pennycress. It’s such a fun plant. And she’s really been successful working with it. And you know, part of our job as faculty members is to get federal grants and federal funding. And it seemed that, that the department of. I spoke with a program officer at the Department of Energy in January. And he said oh, you’re interested in pennycress. Yeah. We want more pennycress research. And so, I reached out to David Marx at Minnesota who sequenced the pennycress genome. And they have developed a lot of the genetic resources for pennycress. And he said why don’t you join our grant? We’re going to, let’s make a big pennycress community, big pennycress grant. So, that’s kind of how I got brought into the pennycress community. [ both laugh ]

Drew Lyon: Interesting and exciting. What do you think this work could mean for farmers here in the Pacific Northwest?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, you know, it’s, it’s an emerging crop. We don’t know how well. I mean, obviously, we know it grows well as a weed. The question is can it perform as a crop? And can we develop it as a viable crop? Could it compete or be viable in this, you know, in crop rotations here? I don’t have the answer to that yet, obviously. But I think it’s worth exploring. And obviously, we’re, we’re not growing weeds in the field. We’re growing domesticated varieties that have been selected for, you know, lack of dormancy and, and certain traits. So, you know, it shouldn’t be problematic. No more. I mean, obviously, there are always wheat volunteers or canola volunteers when you do crop rotations. But you know, the real kind of the thrust of the project is trying to understand both you know, the genetics and the traits of pennycress, ow we can improve it, and also, the agronomy, agronomics and can it perform well here. You know one of the things. I don’t know if you remember. One of the things we talked about is serving, being a land grant, and serving stakeholders in the state is coming up with other options in, in eastern Washington for farmers, other, other crops and other things that can be grown in a region. And this is one candidate. And it has, you know, multiple uses. It could be food, oil, could be jet fuel. And there’s just a lot of interest nationally in pennycress.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, I know from a weed control standpoint and a weed management standpoint, the more diversity we have in our crop, cropping systems, the better. The more ways we have about going about managing weeds. So, this would be an interesting one because of the, a weed becomes a crop, become a management tool for weed control. But very interesting stuff. Like I said, it really caught my attention when I saw that pennycress oilseed. If people wanted to if our listeners wanted to learn more about this, do you anticipate having a website? Or where do you think they can go to get more information? Go to your lab website or what’s the way to do it?

Karen Sanguinet: Yeah. We’ll put a, we’ll put a link to the project on our lab website, eventually. Right now, there is a pennycress I Prefer project. So, a breeding project that’s run by the USDA and John Sedbrook and Win Phippen are also driving that project. And I believe it’s

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Karen Sanguinet: And then, our project, the, it’s going to be called the DOE iPREP for Integrated Pennycress Resilience Project. That is in the works but not up, yet. But there’ll be a link to my website.

Drew Lyon: Okay. We’ll make sure we put a link to your website in our, in our show notes so listeners can go to that.

Karen Sanguinet: Or feel free to email me.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Karen Sanguinet: With questions, too. [ giggle ]

Drew Lyon: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for sharing with us the story of pennycress as a potential crop.

Karen Sanguinet: You’re welcome, Drew. Thanks for having me.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s –( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.