From: Rhett Butler, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published July 25, 2013 08:46 AM

Oil palm genome mapped, could boost yields, reduce pressure on rainforests

A team of Malaysian and American researchers have mapped the genome of the oil palm, the oilseed that is widely used as a cooking oil and in cosmetics, cleaning products, and processed foods. The genome sequencing, which was published today in the journal Nature, identified the gene responsible for regulating the crop's oil yield. The results could be used to boost palm oil yields, thus potentially reducing the need to clear wildlife-rich rainforests and carbon-dense peat swamps for plantations.

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The gene, dubbed the "Shell gene", controls "how the thickness of its shell correlates to fruit size and oil yield," according to Rajinder Singh, first author of the paper and a scientist at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a government agency. According to a statement from the MPOB, growers can "now use the genetic marker for the Shell gene to distinguish the three fruit forms in the nursery long before they are field-planted." Currently it takes up to six years to determine whether an oil palm variety is high-yielding.

Vast areas of rainforests have been destroyed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past 30 years for oil palm plantations, turning palm oil into a top target from environmental campaigners, who have used endangered orangutans as a symbol for the risk of converting natural forests into palm estates. Scientists have warned that the crop represents "single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species". Therefore the news that palm oil yields could get a boost from improved genetic stock could potentially reduce the need to expand plantations in sensitive areas.

However a positive conservation outcome is not a forgone conclusion. Research on cattle ranching in Latin America has shown that in some cases increasing agricultural productivity — and therefore profitability — simply incentivizes further conversion by landowners. Nevertheless, most conservationists view boosting yields as a critical step to protecting forests in a world where demand for food and fuel is surging as the middle class swells. Getting more oil out of less land, means more areas can be left wild.

"The discovery that regulation of the Shell gene will enable breeders to boost palm oil yields by nearly one-third is excellent news for the rainforest and its champions worldwide," said the MPOB's Choo Yuen May.

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, MONGABAY.COM.

Oil palm image via Shutterstock.

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