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Periodic Report Summary 3 - ICON (Industrial Crops producing added value Oils for Novel chemicals)
Quality validation date:2013-02-01
Project context and objectives:
Replacing fossil oil with renewable resources is, due to climate changes and dwindling fossil oil reserves, perhaps the most urgent need and the most challenging task that human society faces today. Before the First World War, plant material was a major feed stock for the chemical industry, but high prices of agriculture products, cheap fossil oil and the development of organic chemistry lead to the total domination of this sector by raw materials derived from fossil oil. However, although plant products, such as vegetable oils, have been ten times more expensive than fossil oil, they have still been used for certain non-food applications because their chemical structures have been particularly suited for those uses. For example, about 15 % of world vegetable oil production (18 million metric ton yearly) is used in the oleochemical industry because it is cheaper to use than fossil oil due to low downstream processing costs. Plant materials used in the chemical industry do not only replace the fossil material contained in the final product but also save much energy in the processing. Cracking fossil hydrocarbons and building the desired product with advanced organic chemistry usually requires many times more energy than is contained in the final product.
Agriculture products, like vegetable oils, have historically been developed for food purposes and therefore their chemical structures are not optimised for chemical industry. However, there is an enormous diversity of chemical compounds in the plant kingdom. Of particular interest are seed oils, which show a great variation in their composition between different plant species. Many of the oil qualities found in wild species would be very attractive for the chemical industry if they could be obtained at moderate costs in bulk quantities and with a secure supply. Genetic engineering of vegetable oil qualities in high yielding oil crops could in a relatively short time frame yield such products. This would substantially increase the competitiveness of the plant oil relative to fossil oil and improve the economy of the agriculture sector and rural society in Europe and world-wide. This project aims at developing such added value oils, mainly in form of various wax esters particularly suited for lubrication. The market for lubricants is in Europe about 7 million tons yearly and globally about 50 million tons. This project brings together the most prominent scientists in plant lipid biotechnology in an unprecedented world-wide effort to produce added value oils in an industrial oil crop within the time frame of four years. The project will also develop a tool box of genes and understanding of lipid cellular metabolism that will enable rational design of a vast array of industrial oil qualities in oil crops.
ICON will demonstrate for the public that genetic engineering of plants can be used to replace fossil oil with renewable resources while taking serious account of the concerns from the public and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) regarding the risk of gene and trait flow into other crops and plant species. Although a major biotech company, Bayer, is a participant in the project, the project is not driven by this or any other multinational company, but by the desire to lower the negative impact that fossil oil has on the environment and to develop the economy of rural communities. Further, ICON will at the same time demonstrate for the industry that it will be possible to use advanced plant biotechnology to create industrial oil qualities that will have substantial added value in crops in a manner that is likely to pass regulatory approval due to the minimization of risks of gene flow or admixing into food oil crops. In this way, ICON will have the greatest impact as an 'icebreaker' for agricultural products for industrial uses using gene modification techniques. Although the time frame of the project does not allow much of application tests of the obtained qualities, it will open the door for communication between material scientists and biotechnologists for designing industrial products in agricultural crops. In summary, biotechnologists will serve the same function for the chemical industry of a future bio-based society as the organic chemists did in the fossil-based society - and ICON can be an ice-breaker for this transition.
As ICON is now entering its fifth and last year, a number of important deliverables have been met. We have now T4 seeds of Crambe lines with 73 % of erucic acid and with 30 % of wax esters of jojoba type that have been multiplied for field tests during 2012. From observation in green house, these lines germinate, grow and set seeds similar to wild type. It can calculated that the value of the 73 % erucic acid oil on the market will be about twice that of regular rape seed or high erucic rape and mustard oil. If the yield in field conditions will be similar as wild type, these lines would be highly profitable to grow providing that they were market approved. The hurdles to achieve market approval for cultivation of such GM Crambe and even to have any field tests with them in European Union (EU) are discussed in more detail in the report. The ruling of the EU court of justice that pollen is a food ingredient in e.g. honey and thus food with pollen from non-approved genetically modified (GM) plants cannot be sold. If implemented in practice, this could prohibit all field trial of GM plants in EU and thus make development of new GM plants for the market impossible within the union. We regard this as the most serious threat that has faced plant biotechnology research within the EU and that could paralyse the whole research area.
A large collection of different fatty acid reductase (FAR) and wax synthase (WS) genes have been cloned and characterised and we have now the tools to, in the last year of ICON, potentially produce most of the other target types of wax esters than the jojoba types in plants. For oleoyl-oleate wax esters, we had previously identified only a mouse FAR that could reduce oleate to corresponding fatty alcohol. However, we are reluctant to use genes from higher animals in GM plants. We could, in the previous year, report cloning of a marinobacter FAR that has highest activity with oleate and now we have shown that this FAR function very well in plants by transient expression in leaves. We have also shown that we could fuse some FAR and WS genes, yielding one protein that could catalyse the efficient conversion of acyl-CoA into wax esters. We have also shown by transient expression in leaves that a fusion between a marinobacter FAR and marinobacter WS yielded an enzyme that was highly efficient in producing wax esters in plant cells, paving the way for producing oleoyl-oleate wax esters in seeds during the last year of ICON without using animal genes. According to obtained in-vitro biochemical data, this construct might also be able to produce wax esters with mid-hydroxy groups from ricinoleoyl-CoA, and this will also be tested during the last reporting period. For production of medium chain wax esters, there have been no good candidate FAR gene, but from a recent publication it was reported that another marinobacter FAR had good activity with 12:0-CoA and longer acyl-CoAs. The phytol ester synthase (PES) genes characterized in ICON are excellent WS genes for producing medium chain wax esters. Thus the prospect are good in achieving Camelina plants with medium chain wax esters during the last year of ICON by combining these genes with appropriate medium chain thioesterases.
Extensive testing of jojoba wax esters in lubrication applications for grease manufacture was carried out. Very promising results was obtained that showed that inclusion of wax esters in the grease lubricants drastically lower the friction and wear compared to triacylglycerol, but a major obstacle was the high melting point. Since the wax esters produced in GM Crambe and B. carinata are very similar to the jojoba wax esters, it can be assumed that these wax esters would perform very similar to the jojoba wax esters. The novel type of wax esters expected to be produced in plants during the last year of ICON will have much lower melting points and thus potentially these could be widely used in lubrication.
As ICON is now entering its fifth and last year we can with high certainty say that the main goal of ICON has been achieved, if formulated as the development of potentially commercial interesting oil qualities in industrial oil crops. Crambe plants with 20-30 % wax esters and Crambe stable lines with very high erucic lines (73 %) have been developed that in green house and show good vigor and normal seed setting.
The evaluation of the performance of these lines in field tests will be done during the fifth year and will give an indication about their potential in agriculture. The high erucic oils have a global market of about 200 million and the price is depending on level of erucic acid in the oil. It can thus be estimated that Crambe oil with 74 % erucic acid will be sold on the market to about the double price of present high erucic oils, i.e. high erucic rape and mustard oil (having about 45 % erucic acid). If the oil yield per hectare of the GM Crambe will match that of non-transgenic Crambe, which is about the same as spring rape and mustard, the 73 % erucic Crambe has the potential to take the whole global market of erucic acid oils, if it was approved for commercial cultivation. However, three major obstacles prohibit the commercial use of our developed GM plants:
1) The present dead-lock for GM cultivation within EU deters any commercial investments in developing GM plants for cultivation within the EU.
2) The recent ruling of the EU court that honey with pollen from non-approved GM events cannot be sold. The consequence is either that field tests for underpinning any application for market approval of GM plants producing pollen cannot be done or no honey can be sold from bee hives in a wide area around these fields. If implemented in its full, the ruling from the court will already make honey from most areas inside or outside EU illegal to sell in EU, since pollen is travelling with winds all around the world. We have, despite the pollen ruling, been approved field tests in Sweden for our ICON GM Crambe, where the authorities require that we put insect net over our field trial. This is possible to do this year since we will only grow a couple of hundred square metres, but will be impossible in larger scale trials. Also, it will make environmental risk assessment of the crop impossible since we will not be able to study the interaction between insects and the plants.
3) Even if the hurdles mentioned under point 1 and 2 above did not exist, the high regulatory costs for getting market approval for cultivation in EU will exclude any non-commodity GM trait in minor crop, like special oil quality in GM Crambe, even if the added value of the oil is considerable. It is in this context interesting to note that the biotech company Arcadia Bioscience received approval in United States (US) of commercial production of GM safflower with altered oil quality to fraction of the cost for GM traits in commodity crops. The approval was given with restrictions that the GM safflower can only be grown by contracting where the cultivation, harvest and processing is closely monitored by Arcadia. Such a limited approval system will fit well into specialty oil qualities in e.g. Crambe, since such crops will always be grown under contract to ensure that the added value of the product is maintained. However, in EU such limited market approval of GM is not possible.
In summary, the development of crops with plant biotechnology in EU is today a mission impossible due to the historically unprecedented hostility towards a technology that we regard as a must, if we are going to feed nine billion people and on the same time deliver biomaterial and biofuel and this on the same acreage as today and with much less environmental impact. It is our hope that grant awarding bodies, like the European Commission (EC), will continue and intensify their funding to research in applied plant biotechnology waiting for the wind to turn. We are well aware of that this will not happen until public opinion change their view on the technology. Therefore, the coordinator of ICON as well as many of his plant lipids scientist colleagues in Sweden are now very active in various media, conferences and meetings with representatives for various sections of the society to inform about the GM technology, its risks and benefits, based on a solid scientific base. In October 2011, the coordinator and 40 other leading Swedish biological scientists, in a strongly-worded open letter to politicians and environmentalists published in the largest Swedish daily newspaper, spoke-out about the need to revise European legislation to allow society to benefit from GM crops using science-based assessments of the technology. A contingent of scientists from the United Kingdom endorsed the Swedish petition. It is our experiences that public opinion easily endorse the technology if properly informed about the scientific facts about the GM technology, its potentials and risks and that they are informed that much of what they heard about negative effects of GM plants in media are lies or des-information. The ICON project is here used as a good example how the technology can be used for the benefit of the environment and agriculture and on the same time take the concerns of the public seriously.
List of websites: http://icon.slu.se/ICON/
|Programme||Project reference||Project title|
|FP7-KBBE||211400||Industrial crops producing added value oils for novel chemicals|
Address: Department of Crop Science
Region: SVERIGE SYDSVERIGE Malmöhus län
Subject index:Earth Sciences, Safety, Food
Subject descriptors:Terrestrial science, Soil science, Technological hazards, Food science
Subject class:Environment, Biology, Medicine
Record control number:54428