Develop genetically modified coconut to increase the production of lauric acid

[ScienceNology] - A University of the Philippines professor has urged Filipino scientists to develop genetically modified coconut to increase the production of lauric acid, a substance found mainly in coconut oil and is used in making soaps, insecticides and cosmetics.

Dr. Calixto Protacio of the University of the Philippines Los Banos’ Crop Science Cluster said the development of canola with a lauric acid content of 60 percent is threatening the Philippines’ lead in the oils market.

Canola is already available in the United States although it is not yet used to a large extent in Asia.

Protacio said local scientists should use the same biotechnological advances for GM canola in coconut, stressing that it offers the “fastest avenue for coconut improvement and makes it possible to target the gene(s) of interest.”

Protacio called for urgent research to regain the competitive advantage of coconut oil over canola oil, which is derived from rapeseed boosted by a gene from the California bay tree and another gene from coconut to raise its lauric acid content from virtually zero to 60 percent.

The US and Canada produce a huge volume of rapeseed.

Protacio said coconut oil used to enjoy a monopoly of a segment in the oil and fats market, estimated at between two and three percent that could not be substituted with cheaper oils.

“Coconut oil is difficult to substitute with other vegetable oils because it is mainly composed of medium chain fatty acids, the most dominant of which is lauric acid, which occurs at 49 percent level,” he said.

Lauric acid, a medium-length, long-chain fatty acid, is found in the form of glycerides in a number of natural fats, especially coconut and palm kernel. It offers advantages in food processing as it acts as a kind of preservative, staving off oxidation and spoilage.

“Lauric acid, a 12-carbon molecule without any double bonds (which makes it a saturated fatty acid), lends unique properties in the food, soap and cosmetic industry. It was also shown to have antiviral and anti-bacterial properties when used as virgin coconut oil,” Protacio said.

In the past, Protacio said the only traditional competitor is palm kernel oil, which also contains roughly the same amount of lauric acid as coconut oil but the volume is quite low to really pose a threat to coconut oil.

Palm kernel oil is derived from the meat of the oil palm seed. The main product of palm oil is derived from the husk or pericarp of the fruit that contains mainly palmitic acid (a 16-carbon long molecule), Protacio said.

He said a similar fate befell the sugar industry in the 1980s, when the US reduced its imports as American biotechnologists developed high-fructose corn syrup.

He said biotechnology did the trick for US rapeseed and corn while Filipino policy-makers and environmentalists and anti-GMO groups are still squabbling over the propriety of using GMOs.

Protacio said rapeseed produces lauric acid through the introduction of the acyl-ACP thioesterase gene from the California bay tree that was over-expressed in the first line of canola.

US biotechnologists introduced the lysophosphatidic acid acyl transferase (LPAAT) gene from coconut in the second line of canola, resulting in the 60 percent laurate content, he said.

“Thus, coconut oil may now be substituted by the more available canola oil and this has posed a threat to the traditional market share of coconut oil in the world market,” Protacio said.

Currently, six genes involved in the biosynthesis of lauric acid in coconut have been characterized and cloned at the UPLB, including the thioesterase and LPAAT genes, all coming from coconut, Protacio said.

“However, these genes are still as yet unutilized because a reliable regeneration protocol is still lacking. The transfer of genes (or transformation) can only be done in cells or simple tissues after which the transformed cells have to be regenerated into a whole new palm for the improved characters to be manifested,” he said.

“The six cloned genes for increasing the lauric acid content of coconut are languishing in a -80 degrees Centigrade freezer. They have not been introduced into any coconut cell culture to produce a transgenic coconut cell line,” he said.

Protacio said that although a reproducible cell regeneration system is still lacking in coconut, some success in tissue culture research has been achieved over the years at the Albay Research Center of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA).

“Around 19 coconut palms derived from cell tissue culture from several experiments have been produced which are now growing in the field. However, the tissue culture method is not yet consistently reproducible. In contrast, tissue culture of palm oil has already been in existence since the 80s in Malaysia and a transgenic oil palm has already been reported,” he said.

A Science News from Philstar , 27 August 2009

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