MPOB unlocks oil palm genome, discovers Shell gene

Monday, July 29, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia-led scientists made a breakthrough with the release of the oil palm genome and discovery of a single gene called Shell that will raise palm oil yields towards enhancing the future production and sustainability of the palm oil industry.

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Director-General of  Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May said the mapping of the oil palm genome would pave the way for many more breakthroughs and helped meet the increasing global demand for food and biofuels while simultaneously preserving the rainforest.

“As the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, Malaysia has the responsibility to make advancements that will improve the sustainability of oil palm agriculture while improving yields for both small and large growers,” she said in a statement yesterday.

On the Shell gene, she said it was responsible for three known shell forms:

Dura (thick), Pisifera (shell-less) and Tenera (thin).

Tenera palms provide the optimum productivity which results in 30 per cent more oil per land area than Dura palms.

“With the discovery of the Shell gene, seed producers can now use the Shell gene marker to distinguish the three fruit forms in the nursery long before they are field planted, thus enabling significantly enhanced breeding operations.

“Currently, it can take six years to identify whether an oil palm plantlet is of the desired shell form,” she said. MPOB released the oil palm genome map in two landmark Malaysian-led scientific research papers that will pave way for major implications to meet the increasing global demand.

The papers, published online on July 24, 2013 ahead of print in Nature, the influential scientific journal, mapped the genome sequence of oil palm and identified Shell critical for palm oil yield.

The publication of two back-to-back studies in a single edition of this highly respected journal is an unprecedented milestone for Malaysian scientists.

According to joint corresponding author Dr Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, Head of the MPOB’s Oil Palm Genome Programme, the Shell marker would also be an important quality control tool in commercial seed production as up to 10 per cent of the plants may be the low-yielding Dura form, due to uncontrollable wind and insect pollination.

Conducted in collaboration with US-based Orion Genomics, the research reported on the Elaeis guineensis genome sequence and tallies nearly 35,000 genes, including the full set of oil biosynthesis genes and other gene regulators, that are highly expressed in the oil-rich palm fruit.

Elaeis guineensis, which originates in Africa, is the commercial oil palm planted in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Accurate selection for palms with enhanced oil yields will optimise production and help stabilise the acreage devoted to oil palm plantations to provide an opportunity for the conservation of rainforest reserves, the research said.

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