The genome of one of the world’s key commercial crops, the oil palm, has been sequenced. The plant’s oil is used in many food and household products, but has caused controversy because large areas of rainforest have been cleared to make way for plantations. Through deciphering the crop’s DNA, researchers have identified the genes that could help to produce a more sustainable crop. The oil from palms has a wide variety of uses and is found in food, soaps and shampoos and biofuels.
“These large plant genomes are very challenging to sequence… we had to use some very advanced technology to do this”
Prof Robert Martienssen Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory
But as demand for the product has grown, rainforests, particularly those in South East Asia, have suffered. Trees have been felled to make way for the crop.
Now though, scientists say an insight into the plant’s genes could help.
An international team sequenced the genome of the oil palm, deciphering 1.8 billion “letters” of DNA.
Prof Robert Martienssen, from the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in the US, said: “These large plant genomes are very challenging to sequence, in part because of the size, but also because they have a lot of repetitive sequences, which makes it difficult to put the jigsaw puzzle together.
“We had to use some very advanced technology to do this.”
Within this code, the researchers found a gene that made some of the trees produce more oil than others.
Dr Rajinder Singh, from government agency the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, said: “The oil palm has three fruit forms. We have the thick-shelled type – the Dura; those that don’t have any shell – the Pisifera – but are not used for commercial production; and we have a third form produced as a cross between the thick shell and the one without the shell, which is known as the Tenera.
“It has a thinner shell, but more of the fleshy fruit to produce the oil, and it is the one used for commercial production. And we identified the gene producing this trait.”
From the BBC, 24 July 2013
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