The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion Genomics publish the oil palm genome sequence (Singh, et al. Nature

For Immediate Release
July 24,2013

Carolyn Hawley
Canale Communications for Orion Genomics
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Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion Genomics researchers contribute to discovery that will protect rainforest

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and St. Louis, MO − July 24, 2013 − A multinational team of scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics today announced the publication of two papers in the journal Nature outlining the genome sequencing of the oil palm plant and the identification of a single gene, called Shell, that is responsible for increasing the plant's yield of oil by 30 percent. The fruit and seeds of the oil palm are the source of nearly one-half of the supply of edible vegetable oil worldwide and provide one of the most promising sources of biofuel. Scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), which sponsored the research, and Orion Genomics authored both papers.

“Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, and we are committed to investing in technologies, such as genomics, that increase the sustainability of oil palm cultivation,” said Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, Director General of MPOB. “The Orion Genomics team was an important partner on this landmark achievement in genome mapping, which promises to help oil palm seed producers, large commercial plantations and small landholders alike increase the efficiency of their operations and reduce the oil palm agribusiness pressure on our wild rainforests.”

The African and South American oil palm plants, Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifera, respectively, are farmed in tropical regions throughout the globe to obtain palm oil. Together they account for 45 percent of the edible vegetable oil produced world-wide. The new research identified the gene Shell, which is responsible for the three known shell forms: dura (thick), pisifera (shell-less) and tenera (thin), a hybrid between dura and pisifera palms. Tenera palms contain two forms, or alleles, of Shell−one mutant and one normal, an optimum combination that results in 30 percent more oil per land area than dura palms.

Currently, seed producers and commercial growers rely on selective breeding techniques to maximize plantings of tenera palms, but up to 10 percent of plantings may be the low-yielding dura form due to uncontrollable wind and insect pollination. Identifying whether an oil palm plantlet is the desired shell type can take six years, and, by that time, the trees cannot be uprooted. The identification of Shell has already enabled the development of a simple molecular screen that can be used with seeds and plantlets to prevent the cultivation of undesired non−tenera plants, thereby raising the efficiency of oil palm plantations.

“Orion’s long−term collaboration with MPOB successfully combines Orion’s genomics technologies with MPOB’s significant expertise and germplasm resources, allowing the team to accomplish research breakthroughs like sequencing both oil palm species and discovering the commercially important genes,” noted Nathan Lakey, President and CEO of Orion. “With the two publications in Nature, we are pleased to share this new knowledge and our methodologies with the scientific community, and we look forward to its further application literally in the field.”

Of the crops currently grown to produce edible oil, the oil palm is by far the most efficient − planted on only 5 percent of the world’s total vegetable oil acreage, oil palm plants account for nearly 45 percent of the edible oil worldwide. In contrast, soybeans produce 27 percent of the world’s edible oil, yet 41 percent of total crop acreage is dedicated to their cultivation.

In addition to its use as an important food oil, palm oil is already impacting biofuel markets and has strong potential to grow. Its energy balance is among the best in the biofuel industry, yielding about nine times the energy required to produce it.

“Because this discovery will help raise efficiency of oil palm agriculture among corporate and small growers alike, it will have a significant impact on the Malaysian economy, because for every 1 percent increase in palm oil yields, Malaysia gains RM 1 billion ($330 million US) in income. This helps Malaysia further strengthen its middle class and decrease the gap between the wealthy and the poor,” continued Dr. Choo Yuen May.

Nature Papers

Rajinder Singh, et. al.,“The oil palm Shell gene controls oil yield and encodes a homologue of SEEDSTICK,” Nature (DOI 10.1038/nature12356), Coauthors include investigators from MPOB, Orion Genomics and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute−Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Rajinder Singh, et. al.,“Oil palm genome sequence reveals divergence of interfertile species in Old and New worlds, ” Nature (DOI 10.1038/nature12309), Coauthors include investigators from MPOB, Orion Genomics, the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics of the American Museum of Natural History, the Arizona Genome Institute of the University of Arizona ,The Genome Institute at Washington University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

For further information on the oil palm genome project, please visit

About MPOB

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) is a Malaysian government agency dedicated to serving the country’s palm oil industry. The agency envisions the development of a highly diversified, globally competitive and sustainable oil palm industry. MPOB is focused on improving production efficiency and the quality of palm oil−derived products, optimizing land use in oil palm areas and finding new uses for palm oil derivatives. The Malaysian government halted the conversion of new forest land for agriculture, including palm oil, in the 1990s. It has also committed to preserve 50 percent of its total land area as forest. To meet increased demand for palm oil, the Malaysian government converted colonial rubber and cocoa plantations to oil palm plantations. For further information please visit