Genome mapping of oil palm could help improve yields

Scientists have identified a single gene critical for yield of the oil palm and have also reported the plants genomic sequence.

Washington: Scientists including an Indian-origin have identified a single gene critical for yield of the oil palm and have also reported the plants genomic sequence, which could help enhance its production in the future.

The findings of the study authored by investigators from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics could reduce the pressure this productive tropical crop exerts on the footprint of wild rainforests.

Rajinder Singh, Ph.D., Head of the Genomics Unit of the Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre, MPOB, said that his 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.

He said that this discovery could 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.

The African and S. American oil palms, Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifera, produce palm oil and together account for 45 percent of the edible vegetable oil worldwide.

The new research identified the gene, Shell, responsible for the three known shell forms: dura (thick), pisifera (shell-less) and tenera (thin), a hybrid between dura and pisifera palms.

Tenera palms contain one mutant and one normal Shell allele, an optimum combination which results in 30 percent more oil per land area than dura palms.

Until now the mapping of Shell has been extremely challenging because of the plant`s large genome and long generation times as well as the difficulty in typing the widely distributed experimental oil palm populations.

The discovery of the Shell gene and its two naturally occurring mutations highlights new molecular strategies to readily identify those seeds or plantlets which will become high yielding palms before they are introduced into plantations, the authors note.

Primary author Robert A. Martienssen, Ph.D., scientific co-founder of Orion Genomics, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator and Professor of plant genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, said accurate genotyping for enhanced oil yields will optimize and help stabilize the acreage devoted to oil palm plantations, providing an opportunity for the conservation of rainforests.

He said that as the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, Malaysia has a responsibility to make advancements that will improve the sustainability of oil palm agriculture, while improving yields for growers.

Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, Director General of MPOB, which funded and led the research, said that the genome mapping of the two oil palm species will pave the way for many more breakthroughs. Together, this will help meet the increasing global demand for food and biofuels worldwide while simultaneously preserving wild lands.

The researchers, as reported in a second paper in Nature, also mapped the genomes of both oil palm species. "The oil palm genomes are a rich resource for palm breeders, geneticists and evolutionary biologists alike and will facilitate future identification of genes responsible for important yield and quality traits such as fruit color, disease resistance and height," explains primary author Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, PhD, who heads the Oil Palm Genome Program and is the Director of MPOB`s Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre.

The findings of the two papers have been published in Nature.


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