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 the country.

Our Crops of Interest

Oil Palm

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.

The 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.

The 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.

Palm kernel 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

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 candle.

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.