Vegetable oils are a major global commodity. World oilseed production exceeds 150 million tonnes per annum and has risen by approximately 50% in just 10 years.
In the UK oilseed rape is the third largest crop after wheat and barley. Around 700,000 hectares are planted each year, producing seed with a value of more than £500 million at the farm gate. The vegetable oil from the seed is used mainly for human food production and accounts for about 80% of the value of the crop. In recognition of this farmers receive a premium at market for seeds with higher oil content and breeders target this trait as a means to improve oil yield. In the last decade rapid progress has been made in understanding the metabolic pathway that converts imported sugars into oil within the seed and this is beginning to enable scientists to make small improvements in oil content ‘by design’.
Up until now only single genes have been altered, despite knowledge from modelling studies that multiple steps in the pathway contribute to the overall control of oil production. A team of researchers from Rothamsted Research have now published the first study to target multiple genes that control a series of important steps in the pathway for seed oil production. The work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and is published in the journal Plant Physiology.
The research was carried out using the model oilseed plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is related to oilseed rape. The study establishes that ‘stacking’ the right combination of genes can have an additive effect on seed oil content and oil yield. Dr Pete Eastmond who led the research said: “We are excited about the potential this technology holds to enhance the oil yield of oilseed crops. We see oilseed rape as a potential target, given its value to UK agriculture, but we are keen to keep perspective. It’s still a long-hop to translate our work from a model to a crop and from the laboratory to the field. Unlike our metabolic engineering strategy, this process will be a case of one step at a time”.