The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion Genomics discover key fruit-color gene in oil palm, indicates fruit ripening (Singh, et al. Nature

For Immediate Release
June 30, 2014

Terri Somers
Somers Media
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Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion Genomics researchers contribute to discovery that will improve palm oil yields on existing agricultural lands, protecting rainforest

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and St. Louis, MO – June 30, 2014 – A multinational team of scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics today announced the publication of a paper in the journal Nature Communications identifying a gene, called VIR, that is responsible for turning the skin of the rare virescens oil palm fruit bright orange when ripe. The color change offers an improved means to determine the best time to harvest the fruit for optimal oil yield, according to the work sponsored and led by the MPOB. 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.

Currently, the majority of the oil palm fruit harvested in Malaysia, Indonesia and around the world is the nigrescens variety of fruit, which has black to deep purple skin that changes little when ripe. The lack of color change makes it difficult to determine the optimal time for its harvest. The VIR gene can be utilized to grow oil palm fruit more easily identifiable as ripe, helping to ensure it is harvested for optimal oil content and thereby increasing oil yields on existing agricultural lands.

“As the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, Malaysia is committed to increasing the sustainability of oil palm cultivation while preserving wild species’ habitats,“ said Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, Director General of MPOB. “The Orion Genomics team has been a crucial partner in this effort by jointly enabling genomic discoveries that will lead to enhanced breeding techniques and more productive and efficient plantations, thereby helping to protect and maintain the rainforests.“

The African and South American oil palm, 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 worldwide

Every day, across 15 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian palm plantations, harvesters spend their days gazing up at the fruit, which can be up to 20 meters above them, trying to determine if the purple orbs are at their peak ripeness and oil content. Often they look for fruit on the ground to indicate a mature bunch overhead. Still, it’s a judgment call for field workers to decide which bunch in which tree has dropped fruit and is therefore ready for harvest. Harvest fruit too early, and oil yields are significantly decreased. Overripe fruit yields lower quality oil as well.

Knowledge of the VIR gene will allow palm growers to begin replacing their nigrescens palms with virescens plants, which will greatly simplify the judgment call made by workers as they harvest more than 20 billion bunches of oil palm fruit each year.

Even a 1 percent increase in Malaysian palm oil yield alone is worth in excess of RM 1 billion (USD 330 million) annually.

Five naturally occurring mutations in the VIR gene conferring the desirable color trait were documented in different populations of oil palm that were collected in Africa by Malaysian-government sponsored scientists during the last 40 years, long before the widespread adoption of genetic sequencing.

“Without the foresight of Malaysian scientists to collect specimens of oil palm from across the globe, it is unlikely that we would have access to the samples that enabled us to identify the VIR gene,“ said Choo Yuen May. “Our collections will continue to provide germplasm that can help drive our research into the genetic and, potentially, epigenetic mechanisms for various desirable traits for this important crop.“

The identification of the VIR gene complements the same scientific team’s earlier discovery of the SHELL gene, which they published in Nature last year. The shell trait leads to a palm fruit with 30 percent higher yield, and combined with the VIR gene, breeders can develop new plant lines that will further boost the efficiency of harvest and profoundly impact oil yield.

The identification of SHELL has already enabled the development of a simple molecular screen that can be used with seeds and plantlets to select higher performing palms for cultivation, thereby raising the productivity of plantations.

“Orion Genomics enthusiastically supports MPOB’s efforts to find new strategies for feeding the world’s growing population on existing agricultural lands,“ said Nathan Lakey, Orion’s President and CEO. “We are thrilled that advances made in the MPOB - Orion research collaboration can be leveraged to improve land utilization, the food supply, economies and the environment. We expect the VIR and SHELL gene discoveries are just the first of many useful genetic innovations that will be made as we grow in our understanding of the oil palm genome and build upon the decades of prior work in the crop by MPOB scientists.“

Nature Communications citation and funding

Singh, Sambanthamurthi, Martienssen, and other coauthors of “The oil palm VIRESCENS gene controls fruit colour and encodes a R2R3-MYB,“ Nature Communications (10.1038/ncomms5106), include investigators from MPOB and Orion Genomics. The project was endorsed by the Malaysian Cabinet Committee on the Competitiveness of the Palm Oil Industry (CCPO) and funded by MPOB.

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