The exciting news that an international team of scientists has discovered a single gene that could boost the efficiency of existing oil palm yields by as much as 30 percent has spread worldwide. Oil palms provide almost half of the world’s supply of edible vegetable oil, and are a promising source of biofuel. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) provided funding for this important research.
In the 1990s, the Malaysian government halted the conversion of new forest land for agriculture, including palm oil. The government is committed to preserving half of Malaysia’s total land area as forest. To meet increased demand for palm oil, colonial rubber and cocoa plantations have been converted to oil palm plantations.
“This finding gives us huge hope. We hope to maximize land usage and produce a lot more on the same amount of land… because we do not want to get into the rainforest any more, we have cleared enough,” said the MPOB’s Dr. Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi.
The single gene, called the Shell, regulates the palm oil tree’s yield. Until now, it has taken as long as six years to identify if an oil palm plantlet is the high-yielding variety. With this discover, seed producers can now use this genetic marker to distinguish among the three fruit forms of palm oil trees in the nursery long before they are planted in the field.
MPOB Director General Dr. Choo Yuen May commented, “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.”
The discovery was made by MPOB researchers in conjunction with scientists at St. Louis-based Orion Genomics. Also supporting this endeavor were New York-based scientists at American Museum of Natural History and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Information about their work can be found in Nature.com.
PALM OIL FACTS
• Palm oil is the world’s highest yielding oil crop, with an output five to 10 times greater per hectare than other vegetable oils.
• Planted on only 5 percent of the world’s total vegetable oil acreage, oil palm cultivation accounts for 33 percent of vegetable oil and 45 percent of edible oil production worldwide.
• Soybeans, which account for 41 percent of the total vegetable oil acreage, produce 27 percent of the world’s edible vegetable oil.
Source: Oil World and Malaysian Palm Oil Board