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Camelina: An Ancient Oilseed Plant with Aviation Biofuel Potential

According to the researchers, breeding programmes to improve this crop for biofuels applications should take into account the high levels of genetic diversity found in its wild progenitor, Camelina microcarpa, in Western Asia and the Caucasus region.

Shivam Dwivedi
Camelina Field
Camelina Field

Camelina, also known as ‘false flax’ or ‘Gold-of-Pleasure,’ is an ancient oilseed crop that is finding new uses in the production of low-input, sustainable biofuels. Washington University in St. Louis' multidisciplinary research is revealing the origins and uses of camelina with the potential to be used as a biofuel feedstock for a greener aviation industry in the future.

During his time as a graduate student at Washington University, biologist Jordan Brock went on several field expeditions to collect wild camelina, including one trip to Ukraine as a National Geographic Explorer. "Seeing how rural people in Ukraine were continuing to grow camelina, a crop that had been lost almost throughout Europe, was especially valuable to me," Brock said.

According to Brock's new study in the American Journal of Botany, co-authored by Melissa Ritchey, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, and Kenneth M. Olsen, professor of biology, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, cameelina may have been a more important and widespread crop than previously thought.

Findings of Study:          

"By combining multiple lines of evidence, in this case, archaeological and genetic," Ritchey explained, "we can gain much clearer understanding of the history of crop domestication and trace the declines and increases in their use over time." The researchers determined that camelina was likely domesticated around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus region near what is now known as Armenia.

According to the researchers, breeding programmes to improve this crop for biofuels applications should take into account the high levels of genetic diversity found in its wild progenitor, Camelina microcarpa, in Western Asia and the Caucasus region.

Camelina: An Ancient Crop with Armenian Origin

Camelina has a long history as a European oilseed crop, but it is still poorly understood in many ways. Camellina seeds were stored separately from flax seeds in early Iron Age archaeological sites, indicating that they were cultivated separately. Camelina was grown throughout the Roman empire and into the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s and 1940s, most Western European countries stopped cultivating camelina, but crop scientists and farmers in Russia, Sweden, and Denmark continued to cultivate and conduct field trials with camelina.

The Washington University researchers examined population structure within the crop species and its relationship to populations of its wild progenitor using genotyping-by-sequencing of 185 accessions, or samples taken from a specific location, of Camelina sativa and its wild relatives. In a separate study, they combed the archaeological literature for sites with archaeobotanical camelina remains and assessed the timing and prevalence of usage in Europe and Western Asia.

"The vast majority of data in archaeobotany comes from charred plant remains," Ritchey explained. "Unfortunately, the high oil content of oilseeds like camelina causes them to be destroyed rather than charred when they come into contact with fire." However, I was still able to find a large amount of data that provided us with the information we required. "There have also been a number of camelina 'cakes' discovered in Viking and Iron Age sites in northern Europe, which are really cool!" she added.

Ritchey also discovered camelina records from Gordion, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Turkey, and Kumtepe, a Neolithic settlement considered the oldest permanent settlement in Troas, the region in northwestern Anatolia where Troy was later built.

Archaeologists have long hypothesized that camelina was domesticated in the Armenian region, while plant geneticists have entertained various, competing for hypotheses for the plant's origins as a crop. "Through our analyses, we were able to test these hypotheses and provide a clearer consensus on the earliest domesticated appearances in Armenia," Ritchey explained.

Biofuel Applications of Camelina:

The renewed interest in camelina has resulted in a significant increase in molecular-based research on camelina and how to improve it. Because of the short growing season and low input requirements, camelina could be a valuable crop in areas where there are few alternatives. Camelina can be grown in marginal soils, which means farmers may be able to cultivate it on neglected or otherwise un-arable land.

These characteristics may be improved through breeding or genetic modification. However, the crop's lack of diversity in modern cultivars makes this prospect more difficult. Camelina sativa is also known as gold-of-pleasure or false flax. According to research from Washington University in St. Louis, camelina may have been a more important and widespread crop than previously thought. 

"Unfortunately, the low genetic diversity present in modern cultivars presents challenges to breeders looking for genetic variation and agricultural traits (increased yield, higher disease resistance, drought tolerance, and so on) that they can use to breed better camelina cultivars," Brock explained.

"Understanding the domestication history of camelina is an important and timely discovery because this effort has identified where novel wild diversity is present," Brock said. "This could be a solution to the crop's challenges of low genetic diversity."

The payoff could be significant for farmers interested in traditional food uses as well as those looking to expand the use of camelina as a biofuels feedstock. "Ultimately, its use as an aviation biofuel would be the biggest game-changer, as airline companies can use camelina-derived jet fuel to reduce carbon emissions and make flying more sustainable," said Brock, who is now a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral research associate at Michigan State University. "Camelina-derived jet fuel has already been tested by the US Air Force and in commercial aircraft, resulting in significantly lower emissions."

"Camelina oil blends have demonstrated viability," he said. "The next challenge is increasing field production and crop yield." Although camelina is currently gaining popularity as a biofuel, there is still significant potential for it to re-emerge as a food and edible oil for modern consumers. During his field research, Brock was particularly moved by his interactions with camelina farmers.

"Observing how Ukrainian farmers process camelina seeds into oil – usually for salads or dipping bread – and a protein-rich seed meal for animal feed was a turning point for me," Brock explained. "Seeing that some traditional uses of camelina were still being used in Europe made me realize the importance of not only understanding this crop and how it was used but also where it came from in the first place."

(Source: Washington University in St. Louis)

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