It all started with a wild idea; a curious thought that led to asking questions, taking action and achieving scientific advancement.
Arvegenix, a startup company located at Helix Center Biotech Incubator is the first group of outside-the-box thinkers working to develop breeding and genomics programs to domesticate wild strains of pennycress into a viable commercial crop for the corn-soy growing regions of the world. For years farmers have thought of this as a meaningless plant, yet Arvegenix see bioenergy potential. Arvegenix is working to commercialize lines of pennycress that are more productive, dry down consistently and produce oil and meal properties that are ideal for bioenergy and animal feed. Their effort is supported by the region’s growing plant science innovation ecosystem focused on developing cutting-edge solutions to grand challenges.
“Pennycress already has a lot of the properties we are looking for,” said Jerry Steiner, CEO of Arvegenix. “It’s harvestable and can be cut down quickly. We want to use this as a cover crop that pays the farmer instead of a cover crop that the farmer pays for.”
Pennycress is traditionally found growing alongside highways in the mid-western corn-soybean belt, but can be found in many locations across the United States. Its ability to grow in diverse environments gives U.S. farmers the opportunity to increase their revenue with an additional cover crop that protects their soil from erosion, preventing the loss of nitrogen to the water systems and helps hold nutrients and residues to improve soil productivity. Because it grows and matures over the winter months, production will not compete for acreage needed to produce major food crops.
Once harvested, the seeds typically contain 36 percent oil content – nearly twice the level of a soybean – which makes pennycress a superior option for renewable, biodiesel and aviation fuel.
Arvegenix has collected more than 900 wild selections spanning across 22 states from Colorado, to Kentucky, to New York and even Minnesota.
Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are helping to expedite research using high throughput genomics to genotype-by-sequence the Arvegenix germplasm pool, including markers and other breeding tools to allow Arvegenix plant breeders to quickly improve yields.
The startup also benefitted from the contracted laboratory facilities and skilled hands at the bench available through the St. Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences at BRDG Park. The equipment and manpower have been integral to advancing seed management and inventory control, quality tests, germination testing and seed treatment testing.
In addition to its valuable oil, the St. Louis company is developing pennycress as a source of food for livestock like cattle and sheep. The deoiled meal (press cake) contains 33–35 percent protein along with fatty acids and carbohydrates. Large-scale feeding studies are currently being completed to determine safety, taste and performance of the meal.
St. Louis entrepreneurs are thriving thanks to a strong research community, innovative tools, a trained workforce and a growing number of investors to advance the commercialization of new products that will improve farming and increase oil production.
For more information on pennycress and the research Arvegenix is conducting, visit their website, HERE.