Genomic research may lead to rise in oil palm plant yield

by Jeff Gelski
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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – Researchers have outlined the genome sequencing of the oil palm plant and identified a single gene, called Shell, that is responsible for increasing the plant’s yield of oil by 30%. An increase in yield would reduce the palm oil industry’s pressure on rainforests because less acreage would be needed to produce the same amount of palm oil.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board sponsored the research. Scientists from the M.P.O.B. and St. Louis-based Orion Genomics authored two papers that appeared in the journal Nature on July 24.

“Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, and we are committed to investing in technologies, such as genomics, that increase the sustainability of oil palm cultivation,” said Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, director general of the M.P.O.B. “The Orion Genomics team was an important partner on this landmark achievement in genome mapping, which promises to help oil palm seed producers, large commercial plantations and small landholders alike increase the efficiency of their operations and reduce the oil palm agribusiness pressure on our wild rainforests.”

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil. According to the M.P.O.B., two oil palm plants, Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifera, are farmed in tropical regions to obtain palm oil. Combined the two plants account for 45% of the edible vegetable oil produced worldwide.

The gene Shell is responsible for three known shell forms, dura (thick), pisifera (shell-less) and tenera (thin). Tenera, a hybrid between dura and pisifera, is the most desirable as it produces 30% more oil per land area than dura palms.

Currently, seed producers and commercial growers use selective breeding techniques to maximize plantings of higher-yielding tenera palms, but up to 10% of plantings may be the lower-yielding dura palms because of wind and insect pollination. Identifying whether an oil palm plantlet is tenera or dura may take six years. By that time it is too late to uproot the palm.

The new research and the gene Shell identification has led to the development of a molecular screen that may be used with seeds and plantlets to prevent the cultivation of non-tera plants, which should raise the efficiency of oil palm plantations.

“Orion’s long-term collaboration with M.P.O.B. successfully combines Orion’s genomics technologies with M.P.O.B.’s significant expertise and germplasm resources, allowing the team to accomplish research breakthroughs like sequencing both oil palm species and discovering the commercially important genes,” said Nathan Lakey, president and chief executive officer of Orion Genomics.
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