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Orion Genomics’ New Device Could Transform Palm Oil Industry

A tiny plastic device developed in the Cortex Innovation Community could cause big changes in the worldwide oil palm industry.

Working with scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Orion Genomics created a reliable and affordable test that can determine whether oil palm plants will be defective when they mature. Farmers can use this information to make sure they only invest resources in good plants, a shift that could drastically increase revenue and increase sustainability in the industry.

“The environmental impact could be substantial,” said Robert Martienssen, co-founder of Orion Genomics and a professor of plant genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “Providing verified planting materials to smallholders will reduce waste, and hence reduce illegal claims to more rain forest to replace lost yield.”

A recent article in the journal Nature details Orion’s development while palm oil — to the surprise of many –is presently the most-consumed vegetable oil worldwide. It can be found in virtually everything: pizza, shampoo, biodiesel, lipstick, and soap; and one hectare of oil palm produces about 10 times more oil than a hectare of soybean. Palm oil accounts for about a third of the vegetable oil produced in the world even though it’s planted on only five percent of total farmland used for oil-bearing crops.

But despite its productivity, there’s room for improvement – especially considering demand for oil palm between 2000 – 2050 is expected to triple.

One way farmers have improved production is by growing a specific type of oil palm plant. Farmers have long known that tenera seeds – a hybrid of the two types of oil palm seed – produce the best fruit. In the 1970s, scientists tried to further improve production by cloning the highest-yielding plants grown from these seeds.

“The clones are supposed to be identical to the parent, so you have the opportunity to choose the highest-yielding plants and clone them, so you can uniformly produce the best,” said Raviga Sambanthamurthi, a biochemist and former director of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre. “That was the thought, anyway.”

But something strange happened. Many of the cloned plants started to produce abnormal (or “mantled”) fruit that was misshapen and lacking oil. This type of fruit is useless. The problem is farmers can’t tell which plants will produced mantled fruit until they mature, a process that takes 3-4 years. Worse, farmers can’t replace bad plants because the surrounding plants would shade out any new ones. So growing bad plants can be a decades-long bad investment.

That’s where Orion comes in.

Applying research conducted by scientists at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Orion has developed an inexpensive device that can reliably determine which young plants will produced mantled fruit. Farmers can use the small plastic devices to punch small leaf samples from their plants. Then they mail the samples to laboratories, and within weeks they receive results from the molecular testing that lists which plants are worth growing.

“If it only costs a couple bucks to know if it’s a good or bad plant, that’s a huge value,” said Nathan Lakey, a biochemist and executive at Orion, adding that a good plant produces about $750 to $800 worth of oil in its lifetime. Currently, Orion is preparing the test for full-scale commercialization.

This kind of agricultural optimization is a relatively new concept, and it could transform the way crops are grown and harvested down the line. Researchers are already considering other applications of similar technology.

“Harvest traits like fruit color and plant height are major targets for introduction into oil palm by breeders,” Martienssen said. “The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion have already identified the gene for fruit color, which should greatly accelerate breeding and provide plantation workers with simple but accurate visual cues for ripeness, further enhancing yield.”

Lakey said these kinds of technologies could benefit the international economy and conserve the environment of oil palm-producing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Working together with scientists at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, we’re able to have a huge impact on a world commodity,” Lakey said. “It’s a great example of how St. Louis is actually a global actor.”