Thursday, May 22, 2008

Genetic Engineering of Oil Seed Species

The genomes of the Palm Oil and Jatropha Curcus are under intense scrutiny by researchers, who want to tweak their genomes just enough to make farm grown biofuels the next big thing.
The Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology Sdn Bhd (ACGT) and Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) [ed:Craig Venter's company] have completed a first draft assembly and annotation of the oil palm genome....The organizations also announced that they have made progress in sequencing and analyzing the jatropha genome.

The oil palm and jatropha genome projects represent the first stages of research undertaken through a joint venture between SGI and ACGT which was announced in 2007 and is aimed at developing more high-yielding and disease-resistant plant feedstocks.

...The draft oil palm genome is already yielding important information including unique genetic variations linked to traits that differ in the two races. One example of this pertains to kernel shell thickness which differs between the two. Since fruits with thinner kernel shells yield more oil, the groups are seeking to understand the genetic basis for shell thickness. These molecular markers and others can be used in breeding and tissue-culture based approaches to address plant yield, oil quality, growth and height and other important properties, including fertilizer requirements and stress and disease tolerance.

...The Asiatic Group has 66,000 hectares of land in Malaysia and is developing 98,300 hectares in Indonesia on a joint venture basis. The Group owns 5 oil mills with a total milling capacity of 235 tonnes per hour and is reputed to be one of the lowest cost palm oil producers with fresh fruit bunches production of over one million tonnes. Asiatic is one of the early members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Synthetic Genomics Inc. is focusing on genomic-driven solutions to address global energy and environmental challenges. The company’s main research and business programs are focused on major bioenergy areas: designing advanced biofuels with superior properties compared to ethanol and biodiesel; harnessing photosynthetic organisms to produce value added products directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide; developing new biological solutions to increase production and/or recovery rates of subsurface hydrocarbons and developing high-yielding, more disease resistant and economic feedstocks. __GCC
For now, these two species require a tropical or semi-tropical growing environment, which limits the growing regions mainly to countries of the third world. If these countries are able to develop these and similar warm weather cash crops before Venter's crew hits the jackpot, we may see some emerging billionaires from the third world.

Both the Palm Oil and the Jatropha Curcus oil seed species offer relatively high yield bio-oil production. But both suffer from significant weaknesses that limit their ability to make a more significant contribution to world biodiesel production. Genetically engineering the oil seed trees and shrubs to provide higher yield, in more locations, with less costly cultivation, would push them into the forefront of biofuels.

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