Consortium completes oil palm genome sequencing

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 14, 2009
Posted November 11, 2009

Yield advancements for palm oil production got a boost in early November with the announcement 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 providing a comprehensive genetic blueprint of E. oleifera and E. guineensis including the pisifera and dura palms. In commercial seed production, the pisifera is frequently used as the paternal and the dura serves as the maternal line.

Oil palm plantations on average produce 3.9 tons of oil per hectare per year, nearly 10 times more than other productive oil bearing crops. Therefore, it has the potential to meet growing demand for food and renewable fuel. 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. However, the E. oleifera 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 types of oil palm. Transcriptome sequence will aid oil palm researchers as they seek to understand the genes responsible for yield, disease resistance and resistance to environmental stress. The initiative generated the most comprehensive genetic and transcriptional maps to date of this important crop.

MPOB and Orion, along with MOgene, LC, also unveiled plans to study the epigenetic makeup of oil palm in 2010 in an effort 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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