MSU professor, Dr. Chaofu Lu, will be leading a team researching camelina. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

A research team, led by Dr. Chaofu Lu, a Montana State University professor in the department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology, received an $11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The team, including five other MSU professors and seven other researchers from across the nation, will explore camelina in fundamental science that enables its sustainable production.

Lu is highly qualified to lead this team as he has been involved in camelina research since he arrived at MSU in 2005. Camelina is an oilseed crop in the mustard family and is similar to canola, yet it requires less inputs. The oil from camelina shows potential as a biofuel alternative and also as a food oil, however, from a genetics standpoint there is still much to be known about camelina.

For this grant, Lu and his team will be focusing on establishing a genetic base for camelina while keeping a few main objectives in mind. They will study camelina’s nitrogen needs while identifying particular varieties that use nitrogen the most efficiently. Additionally, the team wants to find ways to increase the crop’s yield potential by increasing the seed size and oil content.

“Camelina is a relatively new crop, but that has a two-fold meaning. We don’t know much about the crop, but because we are starting the process with advanced, modern technologies, the progress can be pretty rapid,” Lu explained.

According to Lu, camelina has been researched by many people across the country and Lu and his team hope to build off of their findings. By exploring the genetics and physiology behind nitrogen utilization, oil content and yield potential, Lu hopes to advance the development of camelina with the prospect of developing novel varieties.

Since research for this project will be done collaboratively by colleagues across the nation, developing a specific variety for a specific state or region is not the main objective. Rather, Lu explains, the researchers will be taking a systems-level approach to understanding camelina, as well as its relations with environments, such as soil microbes.

“The goal of this project is the basic science of how we can improve this crop,” Lu said.

Funding for this project will be administered for five years during which time camelina will be studied in the lab, as well as out in the field. Lu’s team is one of seven groups being funded by a $68 million dollar Department of Energy program aimed at exploring and improving various feedstock crop varieties. Being on the scientific frontier of camelina research has the potential to open up several doors. Lu admits, it is quite an honor to be a part of this program.

“We were thrilled to have this funding. It shows the federal government is determined to push this forward and they trust us to do the work,” he stated.

There are several different factors that can help determine the success of a new crop. In the case of camelina, markets and the agronomics of the crop are the chief variables at this point, but Lu attests, through this grant, he and his team aim to find answers. Camelina is an exciting oilseed crop whose production could directly impact agriculture.