There are two species of oil palm, African (Elaeis guineensis) and South American (Elaeis oleifera). Together they account for 45 percent of the edible vegetable oil worldwide. Palm oil also has the best energy balance of any commercial product currently used in biofuel applications, yielding about 9 times the energy required to produce it, according to Dr. Martienssen.
The Shell gene is responsible for the oil palm's three known shell forms: dura (thick); pisifera (shell-less); and tenera (thin), a hybrid of dura and pisifera palms. Tenera palms contain one mutant and one normal version, or allele, of Shell, an optimum combination that results in 30% more oil per land area than dura palms.
How the discovery will affect plantation management and land use
The discovery of the Shell gene and its two naturally occurring mutations highlight new molecular strategies to identify seeds or plantlets that will become high-yielding palms before they are introduced into plantations.
Seed producers 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 can take six years to identify whether an oil palm plantlet is a high-yielding palm. Even with selective breeding, 10 to 15 percent of plants are the low-yielding dura form due to uncontrollable wind and insect pollination, particularly in plantations without stringent quality control measures.
"Accurate genotyping for enhanced oil yields will optimize and help stabilize the acreage devoted to oil palm plantations, providing an opportunity for the conservation of rainforest reserves," Martienssen explains.
The Malaysian government strongly supported the genome sequencing project for the nation's most important crop. The government halted the conversion of new forest land for agriculture, including p
|Contact: Peter Tarr|
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory