New method of extracting edible oil

Published: Monday 31 July 2006

It may now be possible to bio-engineer plants to produce more oil. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore have come up with a new mechanism to produce more oil. They have also brought out the shortcomings of the existing system of extracting oil. Ram Rajasekharan, the lead researcher, reported the complete set of genes involved in oil (or fat) production in living organisms. The report was published on the website of the journal Plant Physiology.

The researchers say that the existing system of extracting oil is not the primary oil production pathway in plants. Instead, it is the one plants use to maintain internal systems. No wonder, scientists have been finding it difficult to increase oil production, despite significant advances in molecular biology.

The identification and isolation of genes involved in primary plant production may change all that. According to Rajasekharan, plants receive a limited number of carbon atoms through photosynthesis. These carbon atoms are used to produce two major components -- carbohydrates and triacylglycerol, which is essentially fat. "But once you know the underlying mechanism, it is easier to divert some carbon atoms meant for carbohydrates to make oil," he says. The scientists further demonstrated their work by converting a lipid found in groundnut plant (considered as the starting material of fat production) into triacylglycerol using the bacterium Escherichia coli. In the process, they also showed that plants do not produce fat in cell membranes as believed, but in cytosol -- a "soup" laced with proteins in the cell.

Such molecular-level manipulations may jack up oil yield by 20-30 per cent. For instance, the available oil content in corn, which accounts for a substantial amount of vegetable oil produced, is just 5 per cent. "If one can increase this to 6-7 per cent, there won't be any edible oil crisis in the world," he affirms.

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