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.
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:
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!