camelina research at EARC 2021 Field Day

Shreya Gautam talks about a camelina screening project the EARC Center is involved in, to tease out the part of the plant's genome that control nitrogen responses. The data will help researchers with more than just camelina, however. It will also likely help with crops like canola.

Camelina is has already been used successfully to make jet fuel, and the oilseed likes the MonDak. It’s drought-tolerant, germinates in low temperatures, and its seedlings even tolerate some frost.

But there is one big problem that’s holding this little oilseed back from flying the friendly skies.

Its yields are just too small.

Several universities are engaged in research surrounding this rotational crop that has occasionally found use as a feed supplement, but is otherwise not a common food crop. The Sidney EARC is among them, and the project was highlighted during its annual Field Day Tuesday, along with research into no-till beets, spring wheat and barley breeding, industrial hemp and many other projects. We will have more stories on that research in future editions of the Williston Herald.

For the camelina project, EARC is growing 212 camelina genotypes and seven spring camelina cultivars to help find which genotypes perform best with low nitrogen, but also respond well when nitrogen fertilizer is applied. This will help tease out what part of the genome is controlling the nitrogen response.

The camelina varieties were all planted April 19 through April 22 in a greenhouse, then transplanted out on May 12 at the Sidney EARC. They had just five weeks of irrigation, after which a storm damaged the irrigation system, leaving them dependent only on rainfall.

The plants on Field Day looked good despite that, and graduate student Shreya Gautam said the nitrogen response was evident by the third week. That means the data from the study is looking very good, despite many challenges to the research.

Among these challenges were drought-weary birds, who no doubt see tasty research seeds as an ideal snack, particularly given the lack of such snacks elsewhere due to drought conditions. Researchers had, as a result, covered all 212 camelina plants with sheer plastic bags, to keep the birds out and the seeds in.

Agronomist Dr. Chengci Chen said the genotype trial is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is a multidisciplinary effort.

A group of geneticists are working out the genomes, while another is in the field identifying phenotypes. From that information, the scientists will be able to figure out which part of the genome is controlling the nitrogen response.

Meanwhile, yet another group is looking at soil microbes and how they are interacting with the system to improve nitrogen use efficiency.

Markets for jet fuel camelina are not yet developed, of course, and most growers are likely not very interested in camelina yet, Chen acknowledged. But the research has broader implications.

“If the geneticist find out what gene has the control of nitrogen uses, that can apply to other oil seed crops like canola,” Chen said.

That will help advance those crop varieties, as well as potentially create a brand new market for an oil seed that grows well in the MonDak.

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