Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately-held company dedicated to commercializing synthetic genomic processes and naturally occurring processes for alternative energy solutions, and Malaysia-based Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology Sdn Bhd (ACGT), a center that focuses on the application of genome technology to improve oil palm and other crops, announced a multi-year research and development joint venture to sequence and analyze the oil palm genome.
Malaysia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil, and is allocating about 40% of its output for biodiesel production. (Earlier post.) Rapidly growing demand for palm oil as a biodiesel feedstock, however, is raising concerns about non-sustainable cultivation and harvesting practices leading to serious ecological damage.
The first phase of the agreement focuses on the oil palm itself. Synthetic Genomics will conduct in-depth genomic analyses of the oil palm genome—this will represent the first full analysis of the oil palm genome. In subsequent studies the groups will also analyze the oil palm’s root and leaf microbial communities, to identify biomarkers and metabolic pathways that affect the plants growth and viability.
Synthetic Genomics and ACGT believe that by understanding the oil palm’s genome, the groups can enable palm oil to be a better source of renewable fuel by breeding plants with useful traits. These include: traits that enable the plant to be grown in more arid locations and the development of plants with high oil yield and low height increment.
Dr Cheah Suan Choo, the chief scientific officer of Asiatic Development Bhd., told Bernama that she expects that with the help of the genome technology, oil palm will be able to produce seven to eight tonnes of palm oil per hectare within six or seven years. The current national average is less than four tonnes per hectare.
She said that there is evidence of oil palm’s potential ultimately to produce about 17 tonnes of oil per hectare annually.
Synthetic Genomics and ACGT will also develop diagnostic tests for plant diseases that enhance natural resistance mechanisms for the breeding and maintenance of disease-resistant energy crops. The resulting genomic solutions will help address the ecological concerns on biodiversity destruction through more efficient use of land with higher agricultural yield as well as sustainable development with improved stewardship of the plantation environment, according to the partners.
ACGT is a wholly owned subsidiary of Asiatic Development Berhad, an oil palm plantation company listed on Bursa Malaysia (Malaysian Stock Exchange) and a member of Genting Group. ACGT and its parent company’s chairman and chief executive, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, made equity investments in Synthetic Genomics as part of the deal. Financial details were not disclosed.
In June, Synthetic Genomics entered into a collaboration with BP to develop biological conversion processes for subsurface hydrocarbons that could lead to cleaner energy production and improved recovery rates. (Earlier post.)