The Philippines is developing a genetically modified (GM) coconut with at least as much lauric acid as canola to allow it to hold onto its leading share of the world's vegetable oil market.
Lauric acid, a medium-length long-chain fatty acid, is found in the form of glycerides in a number of natural fats, especially coconut and palm kernel. It offers advantages in food processing as it acts as a kind of preservative, staving off oxidation and spoiling.
Lauric acid is also believed to have antimicrobial properties and is frequently exploited by pharmaceutical companies as well.
But the development of canola with a lauric acid content of 60 per cent is threatening the Philippines' lead in the oils market. The canola is already available in the US although not yet used to a large extent in Asia.
Now a team at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños say they have located the genes responsible for production of lauric acid and they will have a lauric acid-rich coconut plant ready for commercial launch as early as next year.
"The Philippines is meeting 65 per cent of the world's need for vegetable oil. (But) the development of canola with 60 per cent lauric acid content makes it difficult for us to compete in the market, unless we're able to modify it through genetic engineering," Dr Rita P. Laude, gene discovery project leader at the university told the Manila Bulletin Online.
The three cloned genes significant in fatty acid synthesis-acetyl CoAcarboxylase, acyl-ACP thioesterase, phosphatidic acid phosphatase- are currently being tested for their ability to produce the enzymes that 'over express' or multiply the gene characterizing coconut's lauric acid content.
"Three more genes- beta ketoacyl ACP synthase3, acyl carrier protein, and lysophos-phatidic acid acyltransferase - are needed in order to maximize increase in potential GM lauric acid content," said assistant professor Marni E. Cueno, who also works with Laude.
Today, soybean and palm oil combined account for over half of all oil consumed in the world. Canola is the third largest oil crop, reaching 15 million tons in 2004 but more expensive than the other two.