UP expert urges to develop GM coconut to top lauric acid content of canola oil
Dr. Calixto M. Protacio of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos (UPLB) has called for urgent research to regain the competitive advantage of coconut oil over canola oil, which was derived from rapeseed that was 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.
Protacio, who belongs to UPLB's Crop Science Cluster, said coconut oil used to enjoy a monopoly of a segment in the oil and fats market, estimated at between 2 percent and 3 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% level. 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. In the past, 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," he said.
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 which contain mainly palmitic acid (a 16- carbon long molecule), Protacio stressed.
By the start of the current decade, transgenic canola oil that had a much higher 60 percent lauric acid content was introduced in the market and threatened to bring Philippine coconut oil on its knees. The US and Canada produce a huge volume of rapeseed.
Protacio noted that a similar fate befell the sugar industry in the 1980s, when the US reduced its imports as American biotechnologists developed high fructose corn syrup.
The UP professor said biotechnology did the trick for US rapeseed and US corn while Filipino policymakers and environmentalists and anti-GMO groups are still squabbling over the propriety of using GMOs.
Briefly, said Protacio, rapeseed produced lauric acid through the introduction of the acyl-ACP thioesterase gene from the California bay tree which was overexpressed in the first line of canola. Next, 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.
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 warned that to overcome the threat posed by GM canola, Filipino 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."
He added: "Currently, six genes involved in the biosynthesis of lauric acid in coconut have been characterized and cloned at UP Los Baños, including the thioesterase and LPAAT genes, all coming from coconut. 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."
Elaborating on his lament, Protacio said "The six cloned genes for increasing the lauric acid content of coconut are languishing in a -80o C freezer. They have not been introduced into any coconut cell culture to produce a transgenic coconut cell line. Although a reproducible cell regeneration system is still lacking in coconut, some success in tissue culture research have 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." (biolife news service)