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NTU scientists discover sustainable way to increase seed oil yield in crops up to 15%

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) scientists have developed a sustainable way to demonstrate a new genetic modification that can increase the yield of natural oil in seeds by up to 15% in laboratory conditions.

The new method can be applied to crops such as canola, soybean and sunflower, which are in a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to see increasing global demand.

The research team led by Assistant Professor Wei Ma from NTU’s School of Biological Sciences genetically modified a key protein in plants which regulates the amount of oil they produce. This results in larger oil reserves in the seed that primarily serves as an energy source for germination.

The team’s patent-pending method involves modifying the key protein known as “Wrinkled1” or “WRI1”, which regulates plants’ oil production. After modification, the seeds have a wrinkled appearance, which is the basis for its scientific codename.

In the lab, these modified seeds have successfully displayed seed oil increase that is able to produce up to 15% more natural oils. The research findings were published in the journal Plant Signaling & Behavior.

The ability to increase oil yield in a sustainable manner is expected to result in higher economic gain. Past research has shown that a small 1.5% increase in oil yield (by dry weight) in soybean seeds equates to a jump of US$1.26 billion in the United States market.

The increased yield in seed oil would also benefit the production of biofuel.

Global demand for vegetable oil is increasing very rapidly, and it is estimated to double by 2030. In addition, research is also ramping up in the use of biofuels in various applications, which can provide a cleaner and more sustainable source of fuel than petroleum. Increasing oil production of key crops such as soybean, sunflower, and canola is thus essential for a more sustainable and greener future.

—Asst Prof Ma

Ma is currently exploring industrial collaboration to commercialize and further develop the technology.

The NTU team is also studying other ways to maximize plants’ oil reserves, for example, using other plant parts such as stems, for oil production.

Previous research efforts to improve seed oil yield involved increasing the number of the WRI1 protein—overexpression—but this did not succeed in increasing the oil yield stably and consistently.

Ma used the Arabidopsis plant—a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. It contains all the characteristics of crops such as sunflower, canola and soybean, which serves as an ideal model plant for research.

He and the NTU research team developed a patent-pending method that stabilizes the key WRI1 protein which also improves its ability to interact with other proteins. This enhances its effectiveness in producing natural oils and the method can be easily done on other crops. This also encourages a more sustainable way for industries to produce natural oils instead of simply increasing the amount of land used for agriculture.

Resources

  • Que Kong & Wei Ma (2018) “WRINKLED1 as a novel 14-3-3 client: function of 14-3-3 proteins in plant lipid metabolism,” Plant Signaling & Behavior, 13:8, doi: 10.1080/15592324.2018.1482176

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