The multiyear international research project to unravel the genetic mapping of the oil palm - a crop that accounts for nearly half of world-wide edible vegetable oil -and mark out genes of importance to science and industry has great implications for agriculture and the environment, according to those behind the project.
The identification of the single gene that is critical for yield of the oil palm - known as Shell - is reported along with the plant's genomic sequence in two separate papers published in Nature.
"Our team identified an oil yield-related gene called Shell and discovered mutations in this gene that explain the single most important economic trait of the oil palm: how the thickness of its shell correlates to fruit size and oil yield," explained Dr Rajinder Singh, first author of the Nature paper describing the Shell gene.
"This discovery may help balance the competing interests of meeting increasing world-wide demand for edible oil and biofuels on the one hand, and of rainforest conservation on the other," added Singh, who is head of the Genomics Unit of the Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).
"The discovery that regulation of the Shell gene will enable breeders to boost palm oil yields by nearly one-third is excellent news for the rainforest and its champions worldwide," added Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, director general of the MPOB.
The research team explained that the Shell gene is responsible for the oil palm's three known shell forms: dura (thick); pisifera (shell-less); and tenera (thin), a hybrid of dura and pisifera palms.
Tenera palms contain one mutant and one normal allele (genetic version) of Shell - an optimum combination that results in 30% more oil per land area than dura palms, the team noted.
The team explained that using their discovery, seed producers can use the genetic marker for the Shell gene to distinguish the three fruit forms in the nursery - long before they are field-planted.
It can currently take up to six years to identify whether an oil palm plantlet is a high-yielding palm, they added.
Dr Robert A. Martienssen, scientific co-founder of Orion Genomics, and part of the international team behind the project noted that the discovery indicates a clear way to increase production of palm oil using already planted lands, "and thus should lessen pressures to expand the land area devoted to oil palm, notably onto endangered rainforest land – a major concern for the environment and a rallying point for activists in recent years."