Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Malaysia Maps Oil-Palm Genome in a Bid to Increase Production


KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's efforts to break the genetic code for the oil-palm plant could increase the supply of palm oil at a time when demand is growing.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board has almost finished a five-year mapping of the oil-palm genome. It intends to use the results in its cross-breeding program and, it hopes, eventually increase output.

This is a priority for Malaysia, a major producer globally of palm oil, which has both food and industrial uses, most notably in biodiesel production.

"We want to take the palm-oil industry to the next level," said Sabri Ahmad, the palm-oil board's chairman. "An increase in yield of fresh-fruit bunches by just one or two [metric] tons per hectare over several years isn't going to be adequate to meet global demand."

Malaysia hopes to increase its supply of palm oil with advances made possible through the breaking of the oil-palm plant's genetic code. Here, harvesting oil-palm fruit in Bidor, Malaysia, in November.

Malaysia is targeting yields of 30 tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare by 2020, from the current 20 tons. It also wants to boost the palm-oil extraction rate in the same period to 25% from 20%.

If the high-yielding genetic traits are successfully identified and used to develop new hybrids, yields might even be increased to 40 tons per hectare, Mr. Sabri said.

Such technological leaps are needed because Malaysia has limited fallow land available for expanding oil-palm plantations.

Oil-palm fruits of the "deli dura" variety, one of the most common in Malaysia, have thicker shells and therefore less oil, he said. Identifying the genes responsible for shell thickness could lead to varieties with higher oil content.

Genetic information could also be used to improve the timing of the oil-palm harvest, he said. If oil palms could be bred to make it easier to predict when the fruit will turn deep red, signalling that it is ripe, the likelihood that fruit is harvested at the optimal time would increase.

Successful mapping of genetic traits also could help identify the types of oil palms that are susceptible to diseases such as basal stem rot, he said. Basal stem rot, caused by the fungus Ganoderma boninense, is one of the most harmful oil-palm diseases in Malaysia.

Mr. Sabri said the first draft of the oil-palm gene sequence is likely to be completed by June. Some genetic information may be commercial available some time next year. Gene mapping isn't related to genetic modification.

The oil-palm genome consists of around 1.8 billion base pairs, the building blocks of DNA, close to four times the size of the rice genome.

The government-run board is working with South Korea's Macrogen Inc., U.S.-based Orion Genomics LLC and the U.K.'s Oxford Gene Technology IP Ltd. to complete the sequence and apply the research.

Write to Sameer Mohindru at sameer.mohindru@dowjones.com

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