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The World's Most Hated Vegetable Oil Might Be About to Come Good
A new genetic test could improve the palm oil industry and reduce deforestation.
A cheap plastic device could bring big changes to the worldwide palm oil industry.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion Genomics have developed a leaf-punch test that can tell whether a young oil palm plant will be defective when it matures. The process works like this: Subsistence farmers use the devices, which cost about $4, to punch samples from their plants. Then they mail the samples to laboratories. A few weeks later, farmers receive the molecular test results and use the information to invest only in good plants, while tossing the bad ones. It's a shift that could drastically increase revenue and sustainability in the industry.
“Our work in this area has been driven in part by environmental concerns,” said Robert Martienssen, co-founder of Orion Genomics and a professor of plant genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “As we devise ways to reliably boost yields, we thereby lessen the economic motivation to spread oil palm holdings into sensitive rainforest areas that are important to preserve."
(Photo: Adek Berry)
Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and it’s used in all types of products — shampoo, pizza, bio-diesel, lipstick, soap, and countless others. It’s also especially productive: One hectare of oil palm can produce 10 times more oil than an hectare of soybean. And for the thousands of subsistence farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia, where about 85 per cent of the world’s oil palm is produced, it’s a livelihood.
Still, the palm oil industry is often derided for its harmful impact on the environment and labor conditions. Raviga Sambanthamurthi, a biochemist and former director of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s Advanced Biotechnology and Breeding Centre, told Big Think that these criticisms miss the big picture.
“People really do not appreciate the fact that oil palm only occupies 5 per cent of the land that oil crops occupy, but it produces 50 per cent of the world’s oil,” Sambanthamurthi said. “You cannot run away from the fact that the world needs more oil in food. No other crop is going to give you that kind of yield. You have to clear so much more land if you’re going to produce some of the alternative oils.”
Although productive, there’s definitely room for improvement. Demand for oil palm is expected to triple from 2000 to 2050, and just a single percentage increase in yield could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But governments face the challenge of maintaining profits while protecting the environment. The solution seems to lie in improving quality over quantity.
“We don't have much more land to open up, so we have no choice but to make oil palm more productive,” Sambanthamurthi said.
One way farmers have improved production has been to grow a specific type of plant. Farmers have long known that tenera plants — a hybrid of the two types of oil palm trees — produce the best fruit. In the 1970s, scientists tried to further improve production by cloning the highest-yielding tenera plants for mass reproduction.
“The clones are supposed to be identical to the parent, so you have the opportunity to choose the highest-yielding plants and clone them, so you can uniformly produce the best,” Sambanthamurthi said. “That was the thought, anyway.”
But something strange happened. Because of a mutant protein, some of the cloned plants started to produce abnormal (or “mantled”) fruit that was misshapen and lacking oil. This type of fruit is useless. The problem is farmers can’t tell which plants will produced mantled fruit until the plants mature, a process that takes three to four years. Worse, farmers can’t replace bad plants because the surrounding plants would shade out any new ones. So growing bad plants can be a decades-long bad investment.
(Source: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)
This new leaf-punch device could eliminate that problem.
“If it only costs a couple bucks to know if it’s a good or bad plant, that’s a huge value,” said Nathan Lakey, a biochemist and executive at Orion, adding that a good plant produces about $750 to $800 worth of oil in its lifetime.
Lakey said this kind of genetic testing — or “molecular precision agriculture” — is a completely new concept. Researchers are already considering other ways to apply similar technology.
“Harvest traits like fruit color and plant height are major targets for introduction into oil palm by breeders,” Martienssen said. “The Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Orion have already identified the gene for fruit color, which should greatly accelerate breeding and provide plantation workers with simple but accurate visual cues for ripeness, further enhancing yield.”
Molecular precision agriculture technologies are in their early stages, and agricultural industries aren't going to change overnight. Still, they might provide a new solution to an old problem: How do you increase profits while decreasing your environmental footprint?
“We really believe in sustainability, and we think technology is the way to go,” Sambanthamurthi said.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
China moves to Russia and India takes over Canada. The Swiss get Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi India. And the U.S.? It stays where it is.
What if the world were rearranged so that the inhabitants of the country with the largest population would move to the country with the largest area? And the second-largest population would migrate to the second-largest country, and so on?
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.