A Storybook Future for
A field of lesquerella near Phoenix, Arizona.
Like Cinderella, a hardy native plant called lesquerella may soon fit into
the glass slipper of success. Agricultural
Research Service scientists who are studying this wild, yellow-flowered
member of the mustard family want to turn lesquerella into the "Princess
of New Crops."
In Phoenix, Arizona, ARS researchers are breeding new and improved
lesquerella plants to meet the needs of growers and processors. They're also
using techniques of modern biotechnology to explore the plant's genetic makeup.
This work should simplify breeding of faster growing, higher yielding
lesquerella plantsnot only for the arid Southwest, but for other regions
of the country as well. And at Peoria, Illinois, ARS investigators are finding
new uses and markets for every part of the plant: oil, gum, and meal.
Known to scientists as Lesquerella fendleri, the plant is native to
Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Texas, and Mexico.
Lesquerella's "Cinderella story" began several decades ago, when
ARS chemists at Peoria were the first to show that oil from its seeds could
become a new, domestic alternative to castor oiltoday imported from
India, Brazil, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Indonesia.
Robert Kleiman (retired) and Kenneth D. Carlson (deceased) identified three
compounds, known as hydroxy fatty acids, in lesquerella seed oil. All three
acidslesquerolic, densipolic, and auricolicare similar to
ricinoleic acid, the main fatty acid in castor oil. Castor oil is required in
high-quality lubricants for racing cars and heavy equipment. It is also used in
coatings, plastics, paints, lipstick, shampoo, and other products.
Chemical engineer Ronald Holser examines refined lesquerella oil. Breeders have
developed plants with light-colored seeds, improved oil content, and better
Peoria research showed that lesquerella oil could be superior to castor oil
for some uses. But the red-to-brown color of lesquerella oil has been one of
the key obstacles to its commercialization. For many end
productsparticularly cosmeticsthe pigment has to be removed, adding
to processing costs.
To sidestep that problem, plant geneticists David A. Dierig and Terry A.
Coffelt at ARS' U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona,
developed lesquerella that yields yellow-coated seeds with significantly less
of the troublesome pigments. The scientists made seeds available to other plant
breeders for the first time in 1997.
Says Dierig, "This is only the second time that lesquerella breeding
material has been released to the public. The first release, also from our lab,
was made 3 years ago when we offered seed of lesquerellas that had 2 percent
more oil than others that we tested." Now Dierig is readying a new
lesquerella with even higher oil content, as well as plants with a high hydroxy
fatty acid content and increased salt tolerance. In lab and greenhouse
experiments, the Phoenix scientists have also succeeded in producing healthy
offspring from species of other lesquerella parents that, until now, apparently
had not been successfully paired with L. fendleri. This pioneering
work opens the door to producing unique hybrids that boast the best
characteristics of each parent.
Biotech tactics should also hasten breeding of superb lesquerellas for the
future. Phoenix experiments led by Benjamin Kaufman, who is now with Centre
Analytical Laboratories in Pennsylvania, targeted lesquerella genes that confer
a prized trait: male sterility. This trait ensures that only top-quality
plantsthose specially selected by breederscan produce the viable
pollen needed to yield outstanding offspring. Kaufman pinpointed several genes,
known as markers, that may indicate the presence of the valuable male-sterility
Lots of New Product Potential
ARS scientists with the National Center for Agricultural Utilization
Research in Peoria have shown industry what can be made from the plant.
"We know of no other crop that is valued for both its oil and its
gum," says Thomas F. Abbott, leader of the New Crops Research Unit in
Peoria. Abbott and other Peoria researchers hold a patent on lesquerella gum
and the methods for preparing it. ARS chemical engineer Ronald A. Holser and
chemist Abbott are exploring new uses for the gums.
Lesquerella meal is of particular interest to chemist Thomas Abbott, who thinks
it will find use in a lot of productsboth with and without
its gum component.
Xanthan gum, another product of Peoria research, is widely used as a
thickener in products ranging from salad oil to ice cream. "We don't know
yet," says Holser, "how a similar product made with lesquerella gum
In preliminary tests, however, adding small amounts of lesquerella gums to
cornstarch, then forcing these ingredients through a nozzle in a process known
as jet-cooking, yielded a compound that was different than either the gum or
the cornstarch alone.
"Lesquerella gum," notes Abbott, "might also add texture to
processed frozen foods." Holser and Abbott tested the gum's performance by
freezing and thawing samples more than a half-dozen times. Says Abbott,
"These tests showed that the gum can withstand freeze-thaw cycling without
"The gum," Holser adds, "also has potential as a thickener in
industrial products such as paints and drilling fluids."
Holser has investigated the costs of extracting the gums from either
whole-seed meal, defatted whole-seed meal, or defatted hulls. "The most
efficient way to recover the gums," says Holser, "appears to be from
the whole-seed meal. This route requires the least amount of additional
processing and equipment."
"The lesquerella meal that's left over after the gums have been removed
has 30 to 35 percent protein, so it could be used as a protein supplement in
livestock rations," says Abbott.
"Initially, however, we expect that the meal will be usedwith the
gum still in itas a binder or a gluelike compound needed for products
such as feed pellets. Lesquerella meal may be ideal for this
Wood and Linda McGraw,
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of New Uses, Quality, and Marketability of Plant
and Animal Products, an ARS national program (#306) described on the World Wide
Web at http://www.nps.ars.
David A. Dierig and
Terry A. Coffelt are with the
USDA-ARS U.S. Water
Conservation Laboratory, 4331 E. Broadway, Phoenix, AZ 85040; phone (602)
379-4356, fax (602) 379-4355.
Thomas P. Abbott and
Ronald A. Holser are in the
USDA-ARS New Crops Research
Unit, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, 1815 N.
University St., Peoria, IL 61604; phone (309) 681-6533, fax (309) 681-6524.
"A Storybook Future for Lesquerella?" was published in the
November 1999 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.