Montana State University

Student makes the world a sweeter place with camelina

July 28, 2009 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


MSU graduate student Brekke Peterson makes the world a sweeter place with camelina. (MSU photo by Leslie McDaniel)   High-Res Available

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Whether she is deodorizing outhouses or crafting soap in her parents' basement, Brekke Peterson knows how to make things smell good.

When Peterson was an undergraduate in biotechnology-animal systems at Montana State University, Alice Pilgeram of the Biobased Products Institute handed her a paper about researchers at Pennsylvania State University using horseradish roots and hydrogen peroxide to deodorize swine manure. Pilgeram and David Sands, also of the Biobased Products Institute, were looking for alternative uses for camelina meal--the part of the plant that is leftover when the oil is extracted for bio-fuels. Peterson tested the camelina meal and discovered that it had high amounts of peroxidase, an enzyme that when combined with hydrogen peroxide neutralizes phenols. Phenols are the chemical compounds that give manure its odor.

Using steer manure from MSU's Oscar Thomas Nutrition Center, Peterson ran experiments in the lab and found a mixture of camelina meal and hydrogen peroxide was effective at reducing manure phenols.

"Horseradish is way too expensive," said Peterson. "There's a stockpile of camelina meal that could be useful for deodorization of waste from the livestock industry, swine industry, sewer systems and outdoor toilets."

The following summer, Peterson was working at Tongue River Reservoir State Park as a park caretaker. One of her jobs was to clean the bathrooms. It occurred to her that camelina might make the notoriously stinky outhouses smell a little fresher.

"I decided to brew my own concoction and see what happened," Peterson recalled.

Always the scientist, Peterson chose three toilets to serve as controls and dumped her camelina- peroxide potion into the remaining toilets. She knew it was working when park visitors started complaining about the three untreated potties.

"I was so excited when the park patrons were sniffing out my control toilets," said Peterson. "It gives rise to one more product camelina can be used for."

Peterson is interested in other uses for camelina as well.

"I love camelina. I am from (Sheridan) Wyoming where crop diversity is becoming a huge issue," she said. "Growing camelina gives farmers a value-added crop."

Now a graduate student in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, Peterson is screening camelina from the world germplasm bank for different fatty acids and glucosinolate content. She is hoping to find lines of camelina that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Those lines can then be bred with another line that has additional beneficial traits, such as being low in glucosinulate, which suppress the appetite.

The new line can be fed to beef, swine or chickens to create an Omega-3 animal product, while still allowing the animal to bulk up.

"When you sit down to eat a steak or cheeseburger you could potentially get the Omega-3s in a non-marine product, so you don't have to worry about mercury or a fishy flavor," Peterson said.

Camelina has become a big part of Peterson's world. In addition to studying it and deodorizing toilets with it, she uses camelina oil to make soap. What started as a hobby has blossomed into a small business called TaDa Soap! that she shares with her parents.

In the basement of the Peterson home near Sheridan, Wyo., the family crafts soaps with natural ingredients including camelina oil.

"It makes a beautiful soap that we sell to museums, lodges and other stores," Peterson said.

Upon completing her master degree, Peterson plans to apply to doctoral programs. Maybe she'll find another way to make the world a little better with camelina.

Melynda Harrison at (406) 994.3731 or melynda.harrison@montana.edu