Thursday, March 11, 2010

Biotech gets colour coded and turns orange.....

As a Malaysian, it is my patriotic duty to blog about, no not politics, but about our own biotech golden crop, the oil palm! Get this right, the tree is the "oil palm" whereas the gold we're talking about here is the "palm oil" extracted from the bunches of oil palm fruit. You'll be forgiven if, like some Middle Eastern tourists have been known to, you mistake the oil palm for date palms. From a distance, especially from an airplane, the feathery fronds and bunches of fruit look very much like the date palm. (source of picture)

Once you land and get a chance to drive around the countryside, take a closer look and you'll find the bunches of fruit are distinctively different (source of picture). The most obvious being the orange-coloured fleshy pericarp or outer husk (source of picture), when harvested, milled and processed yields liquid gold that has a multitude of uses. Used mostly as cooking oil and sold in sundry shops in my childhood, I remember having to buy this for my mum. Being the cheapest cooking oil available back then and probably all that many households could afford, the oil was not popular as it tended to be semi-solid and food fried in it usually turned orange. My favourite banana fritters never tasted as good cooked in the orange oil as when mum fried them in the more expensive and lighter hued coconut oil. In my child's mind then, orange coloured oil meant inferior and funny tasting stuff.

I recently read an article about Carotech Bhd winning an award for finding out how to get the best out of, get this, virgin crude palm oil! In other words, they made the oil better tasting, longer lasting and loaded with the tocotrienol complex or Supervitamin E. By the way, the stuff that gives it the orange colour is the carotene, same as in carrots, that is rich in Vitamin A!!! My how things do change with better knowledge! To think we used to turn our noses up at the humble orange-coloured liquid gold!
Blogging about the colour orange brings me back to the topic of biotechnology, in this case industrial biotechnology or what some say is "white" technology ie. the use of biotechnology in industrial processes. There is some argument as to the colour coding in industrial biotech with "Red" for things related to healthcare products and medical processes, "Green" for agriculture-related processes, and "Blue" for marine and aquatic applications. Depending on which way you look at it or what you read, white can also be grey! Mind boggling stuff this!

Industrial biotech is huge right now as it offers untold opportunities in converting stuff we grow such as sugars, vegetable oils, and other raw materials into pharmaceuticals, bio-colorants, solvents, bio-plastics, vitamins, food additives, bio-pesticides and liquid bio-fuels such as bio-ethanol and bio-diesel. Using sophisticated knowledge in biochemistry, microbiology, molecular genetics and process technology, white biotech uses microbial, animal or plant cells, their organelles or enzymes as biocatalysts. Considering that oil palm falls under "green" agro-based biotech, use of recombinant DNA (RDNA) technologies have been extensively explored to improve the efficiency of producing commercially attractive value added products. Said to produce an estimated 5,000 kilogrammes of oil per hectare, palm oil yields make it highly attractive, aside from other edible uses, for large scale production of biofuel.
So big is the potential for this sector that there is even a National Biofuel Policy. The oil palm has many ways of producing biofuel in solid, liquid or gaseous form. Examples include blending liquid palm oil with diesel you get biodiesel, using anaerobic digestion on oil palm biomass residues from palm oil processing to produce biogas and using enzymatic digestion to produce bioethanol. The R&D on biofuels has been stepped up in recent years due to rising petroleum prices and depleting reserves of fossil fuels worldwide.

If you're thinking that the use of biofuels is still light years away, think again! In some countries there are already companies selling cars (source of picture) that run on biodiesel and, just to make sure you can fill 'er up, there are gas stations (source of picture) selling biodiesel. I have yet to see any in Malaysia but I'm sure it won't be long before this happens, or has it already? Not being much of a car enthusiast, my car care regimen has been a subject of jokes like "If your car was a horse, it would be dead by now" because, like them cowboys of old, I just fill her up, jump on the saddle and giddy up!!!

If anyone is missing the biotech in all this, just think! Every aspect of the oil palm has been studied from finding ways to increase palm oil yield through genetic engineering to using biotech methods on oil palm biomass to produce biogas and bioethanol as well as using biotech to extract every usable product imaginable from every inch of the tree and fruit. Being city born and bred, I remember in school we were taught that the coconut tree was a "tree of a thousand uses". Well, these days it would seems the oil palm has caught up fast and earned an even bigger reputation for a multitude of previously unheard of uses.

The moral of the oil palm story? In answer, I give you Peter Frampton's fabulous song "Baby I love your way" with his signature refrain "Don't hesitate....". With his awesome good looks, long hair and cool guitar licks, Frampton's song welcomed me to the United States as a nervous and homesick foreign student in 1976. There will never be any substitute for the great music they made in that amazing techno-coloured and care free year!


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