Oil palm genomes sequenced

By Nicholas Zeman | December 21, 2009
Palm oil production techniques will likely become more sophisticated now that a comprehensive genome sequencing project has been completed. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and St. Louis-based Orion Genomics led a consortium that has sequenced three oil palm genomes from two oil palm species, E. oleifera and E. guineensis, including the pisifera and dura palms. In commercial seed production, the pisifera is frequently used as the paternal source while dura serves as the maternal line.

Oil palm plantations produce about 10 times more oil-3.9 annual tons per hectare-than its competitors in the oil bearing crop sector. Used in cooking oil, margarine, baked goods and other foods, palm oil is the most consumed edible oil in the world, as well as a common ingredient in soaps and cosmetics, and an important biodiesel feedstock globally.

The oil palm family has two species, the E. guineensis which originates from Africa and the E. oleifera, which is native to South America. Because of its high productivity, the E. guineensis is the commercial variety planted in Malaysia. E. oleifera, however, has many interesting traits such as a low height increment that would increase the life-span of harvestable plantings, increased resistance to disease and production of higher quantities of unsaturated fats-traits that will add value if incorporated into commercial E. guineensis lines.

"Knowledge of the genomic sequence of these oil palm varieties enables researchers to understand genetic differences between trees that are, for example, higher yielding or more resistant to disease than usual," said Mohd Basri Wahid, director-general of MPOB. "Our goal in completing the oil palm genome sequence is to dramatically improve oil yields for the production of food, feed and fuel."

The consortium included Orion Genomics, MOgene LC and The Genome Center at Washington University, South Korea-based Macrogen Inc., and Adelaide, Australia-based GeneWorks Pty Ltd. In addition to sequencing and assembling the genomes of the three oil palm varieties, the consortium sequenced the expressed genes (or transcriptome) from multiple tissue types for all three varieties of oil palm. Transcriptome sequence will aid oil palm researchers as they seek to understand the genes responsible for yield, disease resistance and tolerance of environmental stress. The initiative generated the most comprehensive genetic and transcriptional maps of this important crop to date.

MPOB and Orion, along with MOgene LC, unveiled plans to study the epigenetic makeup of oil palm in 2010 to improve yields. "Epigenetics is the study of the pattern of chemical groups that influence whether specific genes are turned on or off," said Nathan Lakey, president and CEO of Orion Genomics. "We theorize that by studying oil palm epigenetics, we may be able to help speed the development of varieties of oil palm that produce more oil, rapidly increasing the per-acre efficiency of this crop, which already is the single largest producer of edible oils worldwide."

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