Few environmentalists feel any fondness for the oil palm, with its connections to deforestation in the tropics. But the waxy orange pods the tree sprouts in vivid bunches generate 45 percent of the globe's edible oil, and consuming this incredibly versatile product is almost unavoidable, for it goes into everything from chocolate and peanut butter, to biscuits and cereal. The debate over how to turn palm oil into a sustainable crop has consequently been a priority for some time.
Now, a duo of papers just published in Nature moves a step in that direction, suggesting that breeders could further boost oil palm yields, and in that way significantly reduce the competition between rainforests and palm oil plantations around the world.
In one of the two papers, the research team has made a fully sequenced palm oil genome available to the public for the very first time. But it's the second, linked, paper that has sparked the most interest with its more specific discovery of a gene, called SHELL, that gives rise to the most productive and commercially valuable kinds of oil palm fruits.
Environmental concern motivated the research, says
Singh explains that the discovery equips farmers in the tropics with the ability to identify and plant only the most productive seeds, in turn reducing the pressure to expand into virgin rainforest. "It has implications in three continents."
The African oil palm is the primary source of palm oil globally, and its domestication in
These plump ochre rounds are a farmer's gold, producing 30 percent more oil than other types. Breeders try to control the output of tenera-yielding seeds by manually cross-pollinating the most suitable dura and pisifera plants. But getting a field that teems with tenera is still a challenge, because natural pollinators intervene.
Wind, birds, and insects can result in uncontrolled 'contamination'—which just means that a dura plant's pollen gets crossed with another dura for instance, and gives rise to plants that won't produce the much sought-after tenera fruits. So while manual crossover works for the most part, "there's an error rate associated with it that varies a lot, but it's pretty high,' says
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