Neiker-Tecnalia (the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development) is carrying out research, the objective of which is to improve oil palm crops through genetic enhancement. Its Biotechnology Department is currently working on the development of the technique known as Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS) with the goal of optimising the production and quality of this crop. This technique enables detecting new genes which have important characteristics, such as resistance to diseases, greater production of best quality oil and better adaptation to biotic and abiotic stress.
The research is being undertaken within the remit of the international Oil Palm Genome Project, which Neiker-Tecnalia is performing together with the International Cooperation Centre in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), located in Montpellier, France.
The most produced and consumed
Palm oil has become, over the past decade, the largest source of vegetable oil worldwide, in terms of production and consumption. Thus, it is necessary to complement the traditional improvement of crops with new biotechnological techniques which enable important genetic enhancements of the plant. The selection and use of new varieties adapted to market demand enables a more efficient use of the resources required for the growing of oil palm crops. In this way, more sustainable plantations (requiring less water and fertiliser) are enabled and, at the same time, higher production is achieved, thus avoiding extending areas under cultivation. Moreover, molecular genetic enhancement is seen as a very efficient alternative to using transgenics, which has sparked considerable social controversy.
The goal of the Oil Palm Genome Project, in which companies from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil and Colombia are participating, is to develop molecular tools for obtaining genomic resources, such as complementary DNAs and useful genes, molecular markers and functional genetic maps. To this end, the researchers at Neiker-Tecnalia used the Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS) technique. The wide-ranging international collaboration in this project opens up great possibilities for collaboration in other fields.
DNA-based molecular markers
The MAS method involves identifying a coding DNA sequence within a gene of agricultural interest, or at least near to this gene. These DNA-based molecular markers are relatively simple to use in any state of development of the plant and enable predicting the agricultural behaviour of a genotype, thus accelerating genetic breeding programmes.
Genetic selection enables detecting new disease-resistant genes, genes involved in the quality and production of oil, and genes related to the development of the plant and its tissues. Likewise it makes it possible to detect genes involved in the processes of water stress and fertiliser use; i.e. requiring less water and fertiliser for their sustainable cultivation.
In order to obtain molecular markers and their use in Marker-Assisted Selection, scientists at Neiker-Tecnalia used the differential cDNA-AFLP expression technique (Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism). The specialists are also working on the construction of a reference functional genetic map, the idea being to optimise the efficiency of oil palm improvement programmes.
Food and industrial use
90 % of palm oil is employed for food purposes (margarines, cooking oils, fats), while the remaining 10 % is used for soap and manufacturing oleo chemicals (fatty acids, methyl esters, surfactants, detergents, and so on). Also, with the increase in energy prices, palm oil-based diesel fuels are increasingly being considered as an alternative source of renewable energy.
Oil palm has a yield of four tons per hectare a year, much greater than other oleaginous plants such as soy bean, rapeseed, sunflower or cotton. Given the increase in the world demand for this oil, both plantations and experimental stations are attempting to optimise their crops with the aid of new biotechnological tools, developing solutions for various factors limiting production.
New technologies are being acquired and implemented within the remit of this project, using the oil palm as a crop model species. These technologies will also enable the development of applications for other traditional Spanish crops.
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