Breeding Plants to Produce Industrial Oils
Peabody August 2, 2007
Plants do the most amazing things. They're a steady source of
life-sustaining oxygen, food, fiber for clothing and, increasingly, renewable
As if that weren't enough, scientists with the Agricultural Research
Service (ARS) are also eyeing these leafy
dynamos as a virtual spring of never-before-seen oils that could someday rival
petroleum in industrial uses and even stave off heart disease.
Plants are already tapped for a variety of useful oilsthink of
the shimmering liquids pressed from canola, corn and olivesbut most of
them are destined for the skillet or dinner plate.
However, an even greater potential for oilseed crops, according to
Dyerwho works at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC)
in New Orleans, La.resides in their capacity to pump out unusual fatty
acids that have valuable chemical, industrial and nutritional properties.
Fish-oil-type fatty acids derived from plants, for instance, could benefit the
heart, brain and eyes.
Dyer, a chemist, and
Shockey, a plant geneticist who also works at the SRRC, are getting
inspiration from tung trees for how plants could be coaxed into churning out
such impressive oils.
Tung trees, which used to be cultivated in great plantations along the
U.S. Gulf Coast, produce eleostearic acid, an unusual fatty acid with
applications ranging from furniture finish to computer chip production. The
trees' major shortcomings? They're slow to grow and vulnerable to hurricanes.
Similar limitations apply to other currently grown oilseed crops. With
traditional breeding alone, it's almost impossible to raise crops that will
manufacture abundant amounts of unusual fatty acids.
That's why Dyer and Shockey are looking to engineer plants that will
practically gush forth unique fatty acids, such as eleostearic acid. They
recently discovered that a gene involved in the production of the important
enzyme DGAT2short for diacylglycerol acyltransferase type-2may well
be the "magic bullet" for boosting plants' oil-oozing abilities.
about the research in the August 2007 issue of Agricultural Research
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.