A new research centre in the UK focusing on palm oil research using latest molecular techniques could benefit the food industry.

The University of Nottingham is collaborating with a Malaysian company, Applied Agricultural Resources (AAR), to lead research into genetic improvements that could make palm oil more resistant
to disease, easier to harvest and more valuable to producers.

“Industry-academic collaboration is an important part of research and as a research-led university, we are pleased to collaborate with AAR,” said professor Brian Atkin, vice-president at
the University’s Malaysia Campus.

“The centre will also provide facilities for high level biotechnology research for students from our undergraduate and postgraduate biotechnology programme.”

Among the areas that will be explored at the new AAR research centre are the use of DNA to detect illegitimate crosses, tissue culture mix-ups and other identity-related issues.

DNA finger-printing technology will be utilised to authenticate the in-house breeds and clones for intellectual property rights.

Furthermore, scientists envisage that genetic engineering technology could be used to overcome the barrier of introducing new traits into oil palm.

This technology, together with marker-assisted selection and tissue culture, could speed up the production of new oil palm varieties with desirable traits – such as high value oil, disease
resistance and amenability to mechanised harvesting.

Palm oil is found in a diverse range of products including bread, crisps and margarine. The product is currently enjoying strong appeal as an ingredient because it is free of artery-clogging
trans fats, formed when fats are hydrogenated to make them more solid and extend their shelf life.

In addition, the oil also continues to benefit from a growing awareness of the health properties of the antioxidant-rich oil. According to the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) over 95
million tonnes of vegetable oil are produced worldwide every year, of which 29 per cent is produced by the oil palm, the world’s second largest oil crop after soy.

Malaysian palm oil prices are expected to edge up by two to five per cent in the near future on the back of growing demand in Europe for alternative fuels, suggests a report. Demand for
alternative fuels – triggered by the surge in oil prices – has already had a significant impact on another key commodity in the food sector, sugar.

But palm oil, the cheapest of the edible plant-derived oils, has been somewhat protected by the plentiful supply from key producers in Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, the growing popularity of palm oil has attracted concern from environmentalists. Last year for example, pressure group Friends of the earth (FoE) published its `Oil for Ape Scandal’
study, which claimed that that without urgent intervention the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of the orang-utan ape within 12 years.

The problem, according to FoE, is that over 89 per cent of all palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, and as a result almost 90 per cent of the orang-utan’s habitat in Indonesia and
Malaysia has now been destroyed.

The new facility, which is expected to open in October 2007, will be located on a site adjacent to the Malaysia campus.

“The decision to locate the Research Centre at an adjacent lot to the Malaysia Campus is to enable us to leverage on the resources and facilities available at the School of Biosciences at
the Malaysia Campus,”
said Dr Soh Aik Chin, head of agricultural research at AAR.

“We are pleased to be able to collaborate with an internationally acclaimed centre of excellence for teaching and fundamental research. I would like the AAR Research Centre to emulate
Nottingham’s success and look forward to a successful and fruitful collaboration.”

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