11/19/2019

How Scientists Are Improving Oils Fast

Written By Frank Roeber How Scientists Are Improving Oils Fast

“Kali mera!” It’s mid-August and I’m enjoying one week of vacation with my wife and one of my three kids on Corfu — the locally-named green island of Greece. You will hear Kali mera, which translates to hello or good day, all over the island when you enter little tavernas or shops. Here you will find an array of delicious, fresh salads with feta cheese and extra virgin olive oil.

While on the island, we passed many wild olive trees. Olive oils have been produced for centuries on Corfu. You can find old olive trees growing all over the green island, most of them planted during the 16th century. Today, several million trees can be found on Corfu, producing around 3% of the global olive oil production.

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I’ve been working in the seed industry for approximately 20 years and was mainly involved in corn breeding where oil content is not a big deal. Therefore, my personal connection to oil or high-quality oil comes mainly from my personal cooking experience (father of three always-hungry teenagers). But that changed when I started contributing to Corteva’s sunflower breeding team. And in the sunflower world, everything is about oil: oil content and oil quality.

Reflecting on Greek olive oil and on healthy oils in general, I was thinking about what scientists have developed and are developing to improve oil quality and profiles. I’ve learned two things:

  • Healthy oils have a high ratio of unsaturated fatty acids (essential for a balanced diet). So, it’s all about the ratio of unsaturated fatty acids versus saturated fatty acids, which have been associated with health risks.
  • There are huge differences between oils. For example, palm oil is generally highly saturated, while oils derived from olives, canola, or sunflower  have naturally lower levels of saturated fatty acids.

This is where plant breeding comes into play. Selecting sunflower varieties over the last few decades has resulted in improved oil profiles. Since the ‘70s, a lot of research has gone into identifying and analyzing the complex gene clusters responsible for creating the ideal oil with a reduced saturation profile.

Until now, the transfer of such preferable profiles into modern varieties was cumbersome and required a lot of time and resources. However, scientists now have deep knowledge of the genetics behind superior oil profiles, and, with new breeding technologies such as CRISPR-CAS, can speed up variety development.

You’ve probably heard about the gene scissor technology (CRISPR-CAS) in the news lately. It’s new tech that allows scientists to edit genes very precisely in the genome (an organism’s genetic material), resulting in new desired gene expression. CRISPR-CAS-mediated gene editing will allow modification of oil profiles faster resulting in new and improved varieties of healthy oils.

“Jamas” (Cheers), but that’s another story from Greece about the local liquor Ouzo!