Enhancing Mother Nature's Selection of the Best

January 2014
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Oil palm breeding involves selecting the best characteristics in different palms to produce progenies with improved traits. Today, oil palm breeders have the option of either using simple tools such as selecting specific palms or more complex methods that use molecular markers to identify a particular aspect of a Phenotype /genotype to single out the offspring that have improved yield components or desired growth characteristics. This marker method aims to accelerate the classical process of selective breeding.

However these techniques should not be confused with Genetic Modification. Oil palm genetic improvement is still based on traditional selective breeding from two parental palms, unlike corn, cotton, soy and canola which use genetic modification for breeding.

Selective breeding is like the deliberate pairing of Hollywood celebrity Brad Pitt with Oriental beauty Gong Li to try to guarantee an attractive, good-looking progeny. In contrast, genetic modification is like mixing Brad Pitt’s genes with the genes of a cheetah to produce a good-looking human Olympic sprinter.

Oil palm genome was recently unraveled in July 2013. However the full gene sequence which would expedite the genetic improvement of oil palm using molecular markers has yet to be determined.

With the projected increase in the world demand for edible oils, advances in the technique of selective breeding will increase oil yield of the oil palm trees, reducing the need for an increase in planted area.

The plant breeding station of Musim Mas, also known as the Genetic Research Center (GRC), was first established three years ago, with elite breeding lines from renowned oil palm seed producers. The total area of 246 ha in GRC includes a seed garden and miscellaneous facilities such as laboratories, office, staff and worker housing.