Research and Development
Blazing the Biotechnology Trial
ACGTís commercialization of genomics-based solutions is a big step
forward in realizing the aspiration of Malaysia to be a major player in
biotechnology, as outlined in the Ninth Malaysia Plan and the National
Biotechnology Policy. The R&D programmes of ACGT will effectively
improve the economic growth of the agriculture sector, benefiting both
plantation companies and rural smallholders. It will ultimately create
new sources of wealth for Malaysia through innovations in biotechnology.
ACGT will be exemplary of the governmentís effort in encouraging the
private sector to drive the development of a biotechnology industry in
Crops of Interest
The commercial oil palm originates from West Africa, where it exists in
wild and semi-wild groves. Cultivation of the oil palm started in the
early 19th century along Africa's west coast and spread to the central
region. It was introduced into Southeast Asia in 1848 when the Dutch
planted four oil palm seedlings in the Buitenzorg (now Bogor) Botanic
Gardens in Java.
Tow of these seedlings came from the Amsterdam Botanic
Gardens and the other two from Bourbon on Reunion, an island in the
Indian Ocean. The plants derived from these four palms were found to be
similar and although they originated from two different places, the
seeds of the four palms were thought to have originated from the same
place in Africa and could even possibly be taken from the same plant.
The progeny of these four palms were planted in Sumatra, in the 1860s,
and from one of the experimental plots planted in Deli came the "Deli dura" stock. This became the source of planting materials for the
establishment of oil palm plantation in Souheast Asia. The oil palm was
introduced into Malaysia in 1875. The first commercial planting in this
country began in 1917 at Tennamaram Estate, Kuala Selangor. A second
plantation was also established in the same year in Elmina Estate, also
in Kuala Selangor.
In the early days, these plantations were established
using the Deli dura palms. However, with the expansion of planting in
the 1960s, these were replaced with palms from tenera race. The tenera
is a hybrid of the thick-shelled Deli dura and the shell-less pisifera.
Over the years, several types of pisifera have been introduced and the
most popular types are AVROS, Yangambi and La Me. Tenera fruits have a
thicker mesocarp and thus produce higher oil yield.
The commercial oil
palm belongs to the Elaeis. There are two cultivated species of palms
under this genus that is, the West African guineensis and the South
American Elaeis oleifera. The oil palm planted in Southeast Asia, as
well as in much of the rest of the world, is of the African type.
oil palm is a monocot, a group of plants which includes grasses like
rice, wheat and barley. It produces male and female inflorescences on
the same tree which mature at different times. This allow cross
fertilization to occur. The flower are pollinated by weevil known as Elaedobius kamerunicus. The fruits take about five-and-a-half months to
mature and ripen. Each bunch contains about 1,000 to 3,000 fruits.
fruits has an outer fleshy mesocarp, from which oil is extracted, and an
inner kernel surrounded by a shell. The oil extracted from the kernel,
known as palm kernel oil, has a different composition from that of oil
palm. While palm oil is rich in C-18 fatty acids, the dominant fatty
acid in palm kernel oil is lauric acid, a C-12 fatty acid.
oil has a chemical composition similar to that of coconut oil and it is
an important feedstock for the oleochemical industry. Palm oil, on the
other, is mainly used for edible purposes.
Jatropha can produce a type of non edible oil that is used to make
biodiesel, a clean burning fuel that is also biodegradable and
sustainable. According to Vasudevan and Briggs (2008), jatropha has
tremendous potential for biodiesel production. Biodiesel produced from
crude jatropha oil can partly substitute costly fossil fuel imports for
landlocked countries. It is currently being studied as a possible
solution to help solve the current food and fuel dilemma. As a result,
interest in jatropha cultivation has risen. This interest has seen crude
jatropha oil (CJO) being studied as a sustainable fuel source,
especially in rural communities in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has
been shown that CJO can be extracted from jatropha seeds either
hydraulically using a press or chemically using solvents (Heller, 1996).
Seeds from the jatropha plant are black in colour, 2 cm long and about 1
cm thick with a small whitish caruncle. Each seed is rich in crude fat
oil (from 30 per cent to 50 per cent). This high oil content is
flammable. In rural communities, jatropha seeds are separated from its
shell and husk and dried. A sharp thin stick can be used to pierce and
stack several seeds together. In this manner, it can then burn like a
The fatty acid composition of CJO contains four important fatty
acids: palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic acid. These are fatty acids
similar to vegetable oil, and can be used as a biodiesel source.
However, the seeds have toxins which are harmful to humans and many
animals. This toxicity stems from the presence of a toxic protein called
curcin and diterpene esters. Curcin hinders protein synthesis in vitro (Stirpe
et al. 1976) and is quite similar to ricin which is the toxic protein of
the castorbean. Despite its toxicity, jatropha has a bright potential as
a biofuel source. This is due to its characteristics as a drought
resistant species - it can grow on marginal semi-arid lands. This is a
point worth noting.
Jatropha can be planted in areas not dedicated to
food crops. Thus it avoids competing with food production which requires
fertile land. Despite being drought resistant, it needs at least 600mm
of annual rainfall to thrive. It can survive long drought period of up
to three years by shedding its leaves. The dropped leaves also acts as a
soil enriching mulch. The average productive life span of jatropha
plants ranges from 30 to 50 years, with some plants starting to produce
seeds from as short as three months to as long as two years. Overall,
the jatropha plant can be described as a small tree or large shrub,
which can reach a height of up to 5 m. It has branches which when
injured, produces a flowing latex sap. The traditional application of
this sap is to arrest bleeding of wounds. It also has antiseptic
properties. Parts of the jatropha plant canbe used to make soap,
traditional medicine and veterinary purposes. Jatropha oil has a strong
purgative action and is also widely used for skin diseases and to soothe
pain such as that caused by rheumatism. An interesting aspect to
consider is that jatropha plants can be intercropped with cash crops
like vanilla, coffee, sugar, fruits and vegetables. In this way, it
offers protection against grazing livestock and erosion. Asides as a
potential source of green fuel, jatropha can also be grown as a living
fence or hedge to protect livestock, as an anti-soil erosion measure to
safeguard hill slopes and beaches, as a source of natural ingredients
for traditional medicine and as a signpost to demarcate fields or roads,
reducing potential boundary disputes.