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Rapeseed oil gets biotech boost

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23 November 2012

Vegetable oils are obtained from the seeds and fruits of crop plants such as oilseed rape, sunflower, soybean and palm. They are a major global commodity and contribute significantly to our bio-economy. World production has surpassed 150 million tons per year for the first time and is predicted to rise by 50% within 20 years to meet growing demand.

Vegetable oils are used primarily as ingredients in food and for cooking. They are a source of essential fatty acids (i.e. omega-3 and -6) and can form a substantial proportion of the calories in the Western diet (up to 25%). They are also used in the production of many non-food products such as paints, lubricants, cosmetics, detergents, plastics and resins, and increasingly they are feedstock for the production of biofuels. In doing so, they present more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals, from which many of these products are currently derived.

In the UK oilseed rape (Brassica napus) is our major vegetable oil crop. Over 700,000 hectares were grown this year, producing close to £900 million worth of seed.

In the experiment, performed on oilseed rape and published in The Plant Biotechnology Journal, the team use RNAi suppression as a tool to switch off the enzyme responsible for oil breakdown, specifically for the duration of seed development. This results in the accumulation of around 8% more oil in the seed.

The work, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, was performed in collaboration with BASF Plant Science. The team believes that further work would be required to establish the efficacy of this method in the field and also to investigate whether it could be applied to other oilseed crops, or successfully combined with alternative approaches to boost yield.

Dr Pete Eastmond at Rothamsted Research said "Oilseed rape has become quite a profitable crop in recent years and the scale of cultivation in the UK has increased substantially. Farmers receive a bonus at market, based on the oil content of their seed. If this technology translates from laboratory to field, we estimate it could be worth an extra £40 million per year to farmers in the UK alone".

The work could have wider implications for global food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) forecasts that global food production will need to increase by over 40% by 2030, and 70% by 2050. Even now in the second decade of the 21st century nearly one billion people are undernourished and food prices are at an all-time high, with price volatility leading to socioeconomic impacts, such as civil unrest. The UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, has concluded "The challenge for global agriculture is to grow more food on not much more land, using less water, fertiliser and pesticides than we have historically done".

ENDS

Notes to editors

The publication, Suppression of the sugar dependant1 triacylglycerol lipase family during seed development enhances oil yield in oilseed rape (Brassica napus), doi:10.1111/pbi.12021, is available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pbi.12021/abstract

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted is the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for nearly 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production. Our strength lies in our integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant and soil science.

Rothamsted Research receives strategic funding from BBSRC . It is the longest running agricultural research station in the world, developing environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production through science and innovation for nearly 170 years.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Darren Hughes, Head of Communications, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2673