Breakthrough in oil palm research

This is written by columnist Dr Ahmad Ibrahim.

KUALA LUMPUR: RECENTLY, scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) made headlines. Their breakthrough in deciphering oil palm genome was well-received.

Dr Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, a fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia who led the team, could not hide her excitement in a recent talk at the academy's idea exchange event. 

The discovery promises to break the deadlock in palm oil yield, which has been stagnated for many years now. When that happens, palm oil production in Malaysia is set to expand again. This is also expected to bring comfort to the industry, which is under pressure from environmental groups calling for further restrain in opening new land for oil palm cultivation. 

With the expected 30 per cent improvement in yield, the oil palm will continue to widen its lead in productivity over other competing oils. 

What exactly is the breakthrough? How significant is it? And, how would the findings be put to use? 

Though led by Malaysians, the team had collaboration from Orion Genomics, a United States biotech company. 

The discovery involves the identification of a single gene, called Shell, that is responsible for increasing the plant's oil yield. 

It is significant in terms of scientific advancement, considering that two papers from the work were accepted for publication in the prestigious international journal, Nature. 

But more important is the potential the findings will have in bringing benefits to the palm oil industry. For decades now, palm oil is a source of nearly one-half of the supply of edible vegetable oil worldwide. This is now expected to be sustained for a longer term.

According to MPOB director-general Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May: "The discovery will have a significant impact on the Malaysian economy because for every one per cent increase in palm oil yields, Malaysia gains RM1 billion (US$330 million) in income."

The oil palm that is widely grown in Malaysia is a hybrid of two varieties: dura, which has thick shells and therefore gives lower yield, and the shell-less pisifera, which makes processing difficult to separate the palm oil from the kernel oil. 

The hybrid of the two is the tenera, which is the common variety cultivated. It has a thinner shell than the dura and therefore has better yield.

Seed producers rely on selective breeding techniques to maximise plantings of tenera palms. The problem is that they often end up with up to 10 per cent of plantings may be the low-yielding dura. This arises because of the uncontrollable wind and insect pollination. Identifying whether an oil palm plantlet is the desired shell type can take six years. This can be costly because, by then, the trees cannot be uprooted. 

The identification of Shell has enabled the development of a simple molecular screen that can be used with seeds and plantlets to prevent the cultivation of undesired non-tenera plants, thereby, raising the efficiency of oil palm plantations.

The researchers also hope their public release of the genome will allow other scientists to pinpoint more genes that might be useful for improving oil palm trees, such as resisting drought and diseases. "We're not going to stop here," said Ravigadevi.

The board, which is financed by the government, paid for most of the research. Genome-driven improvements to oil palm trees, the researchers argue, could allow farmers to produce more oil on less land. Writing in Nature, they claim that the genome will "help to achieve sustainability for biofuels and edible oils, reducing the rainforest footprint of this tropical plantation crop".

The new study is "a major breakthrough", said David Edwards, a conservation biologist at James Cook University, Australia. "The only way that we will be able to feed the projected human population of nine to 10 billion without huge waves of deforestation is through increases in crop yield."

Apparently, French scientists have been working for seven years to break the yield code. The breakthrough is further testimony of the fact that Malaysia is not short of world-class scientists!