Palm oil is one of the most commonly used edible vegetable oils, accounting for 45% of worldwide consumption. There is also a growing market for palm oil as a biofuel.
However, recent years have seen an increasing pressure on oil palm growers to increase their palm oil yield without increasing the land on which the oil palm is grown. This is particularly apparent in countries such as Malaysia – the world’s second biggest producer of palm oil – where the area of land available for agriculture has been restricted in order to conserve the country’s rainforest.
The answer to this problem might well lie in the DNA of the oil palm itself. Using the recently elucidated full oil palm genome sequence, a multinational group, led by Professor Robert Martienssen and Dr. Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi, have identified a gene in the plant which is responsible for the thickness of the shell of the oil palm fruit. Plants with two copies of this gene – which has been named SHELL – have a particularly thick outer coating. In contrast, plants which possess no copies of the gene lack any kind of outer layer.
Most importantly, it has been noted that plants that possess only one copy of the SHELL gene have a larger fruit with a thinner shell. These plants produce around 30% more palm oil per metre of farmed land than either their thick-shelled or shell-less siblings.
Previously, identification of these higher yielding plants took 6 years, as farmers had to wait until the plant had grown sufficiently to start producing fruit. This is clearly a slow process, and has resulted in oil palm plantations which contain a mixture of high and lower yielding plants.
The hope is that future growers will be able to genetically screen palm oil plants at an early stage and then select for those plants will have the highest palm oil yield. In this way, farmers would be able to see an up to 30% increase in their palm oil production without increasing the area on which they farm.