The Oil Palm Genome Project may help to produce more sustainable plantations (requiring less water and fertiliser) which at the same time achieve higher production, therefore avoiding further deforestation for cultivation and production.
The research project involves companies from all over the world, in addition to research institutions such as Neiker-Tecnalia (the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development) and the International Cooperation Centre in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), located in Montpellier, France.
The goal of the project is to develop molecular tools for obtaining genomic resources, such as complementary DNAs and useful genes, molecular markers and functional genetic maps.
“Molecular genetic enhancement is seen as a very efficient alternative to using transgenics, which has sparked considerable social controversy,” said the Neiker-Tecnalia researchers.
In the past decade palm oil has become the largest source of vegetable oil worldwide, in terms of production and consumption.
Ninety per cent of palm oil is used for food, whilst the remaining ten per cent is used for soap and manufacturing oleo chemicals (including fatty acids, methyl esters, surfactants, detergents, and so on).
Oil palm has a yield of four tons per hectare a year, much greater than other oleaginous plants such as soy bean, rapeseed, sunflower or cotton.
However, with rising consumer awareness over negative social and environmental effects of palm oil production, the food industry is under increasing pressure to use palm oil that is sustainably sourced.
Coupled with an increase in demand for palm oil, this means plantations and ‘experimental stations’ are attempting to optimise crops with the aid of new biotechnological tools.
The Neiker-Tecnalia researchers said the selection and use of new varieties adapted to market demand will enable a more efficient use of the resources required for the growing of oil palm crops.
The Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS) method being used by researchers at Neiker-Tecnalia involves identifying coding DNA sequenced within genes of agricultural interest.
Such DNA-based markers then relatively enable the prediction of particular traits (such as disease resistance of increased yield) by genotype, therefore adding further knowledge to, and accelerating, genetic breeding programmes.
The Neiker-Tecnalia scientists explained that genetic selection enables detecting new disease-resistant genes, genes involved in the quality and production of oil, and genes related to the development of the plant and its tissues.
“Likewise it makes it possible to detect genes involved in the processes of water stress and fertiliser use; i.e. requiring less water and fertiliser for their sustainable cultivation,” said the Neiker-Tecnalia team.
“It is necessary to complement the traditional improvement of crops with new biotechnological techniques which enable important genetic enhancements of the plant,” they added.