Can artificial palm oil help save tropical forests?

Tom Jeffries and Tom Kalher met in the 1970s while studying microbes useful for industry at Rutgers University. Jeffrey oversaw the yeast genomics program at the US Department of Agriculture. Kalhor spent decades in the biomedical industry working with biomaterials such as insulin, which were produced in large fermentation tanks by genetically modified microbes.

Jeffries and Kalhor teamed up in 2007 to form a company with the fundamental funding of the National Science Foundation. The Wisconsin-based startup, called Xylome, aims to find better ways to produce low-carbon fuels by feeding agricultural waste to yeast. However, Jeffries and Kalhor accidentally, a few years later, turned their efforts to a global environmental problem: palm oil.

Palm oil is the cheapest and most widely used vegetable oil in the world, the production of which is one of the main factors in deforestation and biodiversity reduction in the tropics. This and other problems of the palm oil industry, such as labor exploitation, have for years led to interest in discovering more sustainable options.

But it is difficult to find good alternatives to palm oil. Other vegetable oils have similar disadvantages to palm oil, and sustainable forestry practices are not always effective in meeting increasing demand.

Today, the world consumes nearly 70 million tons of palm oil annually, which is used in a variety of products from toothpaste and oat milk to biodiesel and detergents. Demand for palm oil is projected to more than double by 2050.

But with advances in bioengineering and growing concerns about sustainability, companies like Xylom have developed microbial oils that they say could be a substitute for palm oil while preventing its most damaging effects.

These companies join other synthetic biology companies (from venture capital investments and new fertilizers to laboratory-produced meat) that aspire to solve environmental problems, but with similar challenges in scaling up production and demonstrating a more sustainable approach to their products. Traditional, face to face.

Last year, startup C16 Biosciences opened a new lab in Manhattan to produce a microbial alternative to palm oil. This is done with the financial support of the Bill Gates Climate Solutions Investment Fund. Kiverdi startup in Canada is also working to produce yeast oil using carbon from the atmosphere. A team of bioengineers at Bath University is also working to increase the scale of their oily yeast production.

Xylom recently shipped its first palm oil alternative samples, called Yoil, for review to a number of major palm oil suppliers and the Food and Drug Administration.

Although there are major challenges to increasing production at a cost that can compete with slaughtered palm oil, and there are questions about how the emerging biotechnology industry in the Northeast is affecting palm oil-based livelihoods in the South, these microbial oils can Help curb the unbridled growth of palm oil, which threatens biodiversity-rich regions of the world.

Kalhor, the current CEO of Xylom, said that if yeast oils could reach low prices to compete with trees, there would be a big difference in the source of the palm oil.

Specific strain of yeast used by Xylom of the species Lipomyces starkeyi has been created. This genetically modified strain that feeds on corn syrup produces a lot of oil.

In 2013, Jeffries, now president of Xylom, discovered that the oil from the strain was similar to palm oil, which is valued for its distinct combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. The compound is solid at room temperature and liquid at body temperature. Therefore, it is great for chocolate coatings, soaps and cosmetics. Other parts of palm oil, especially in countries such as China, India and Indonesia, are used as fuel, solvents, lubricants and in many other products.

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The similarity between yeast oil and palm oil was discovered by chance. Xylom was looking for diesel fuel. But when Kalhor’s daughter told him about her favorite valley, cosmetics without palm oil, Jeffries and Kalhor thought that an alternative to palm oil might be available.

Although palm oil production is responsible for less than one percent of deforestation worldwide, according to a 2018 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the tropics. In Borneo, for example, oil palm cultivation has accounted for more than half of all deforestation in the past two decades.

Future demand could lead to more deforestation. A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature shows that more than one million square miles of high biodiversity areas could be threatened by oil palm cultivation, potentially affecting more than 40 percent of all endangered bird, mammal and amphibian species. Will put.

Deforestation also emits greenhouse gases, as carbon-rich soils from the bottom of untouched forests are destroyed and trees are burned to clear land for the cultivation of oil palm trees.

Given these impacts, suppliers (working through organizations such as the Sustainable Palm Oil Roundtable (RSPO), which has been certifying palm oil supply chains since 2007), are looking for ways to increase oversight of palm oil production to ensure Crops were grown on fields with high biodiversity or rich in carbon.

Janis Lee, an environmental scientist studying palm oil at Singapore’s Nanyang University of Technology, said the approach has limitations, as a growing number of palm oil growers receive certification. For example, it can be difficult to certify small-scale producers, who in some areas collectively produce the most. “Certification is not a magical solution,” he said.

About 20% of palm oil producers are RSPO certified.

Researcher in a yeast oil production laboratory

A team of researchers from Bath University and York University are working to produce an industrial-scale alternative to yeast palm oil.

But finding a replacement for palm oil is challenging. Other tropical oils (such as coconut oil) have lower yields than palm oil and will have a more negative effect even if grown on an equal scale.

Other non-tropical oils, such as soybean oil or corn oil, can be grown outside the tropics with high biodiversity, but they require more processing to replace palm oil in many applications. This processing is expensive and results in the production of trans fats, which have been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration since 2015.

Kalhor and Jeffries decided to market their yeast as a better alternative. These microbes produce oil in the laboratory that has a lipid profile that is almost similar to palm oil. These yeasts can be fed with items such as corn or sugarcane or wastes such as corn bran and wheat germ that do not require tropical agriculture and can reduce production costs. In addition, microbial oils can be produced anywhere, reducing the distance between the plant and the consumer.

The challenge of producing microbial oils is for yeasts to produce oil on a large scale and at a price that can compete with traditional agriculture, and this must be done quickly enough to prevent the destructive growth of the palm oil industry.

Advances in technology can help. Starter C16 Biosciences is optimizing conditions in its Manhattan lab so that its genetically modified yeasts can grow well.

Christopher Chuck, a fellow chemical engineer at Bath University, is also working on more productive varieties of yeast, but instead of modifying the microbes using gene editing tools, he is focusing on a guided evolution process. This approach involves exposing the yeast colonies to a stressful diet to produce more oil from cheaper raw materials. Chuck said the approach could lead to stronger microbes and also avoid the rules governing genetically modified organisms.

Xylom, which owns the patent for yeast genetic modification methods Lipomyces starkeyi Is a valley trying to increase the yield of its maize sugar-fed strain. Another aspect that is being developed is that it can feed on waste from ethanol production to produce oil. Kalhor claims that this strain of the valley can eventually produce oil that is half the price of Malaysian crude palm oil.

Decades of research into the use of such cellulosic fiber raw materials for biofuels have shown that this is a difficult goal, but Kalhor and Jeffries are confident that their company can do it.

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Jeffrey Linger, a bioengineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, explained that the development of such microbial oil alternatives is worth pursuing, although these companies have a difficult path ahead to develop efficient strains that are mass-produced and use cellulosic waste. .

Even with improved strains, there are limitations. Chuck’s team, in the form of the “limitations of science” model, envisioned a way in which microbial oils might reach the same price as palm oil in the future. They found that even in the ideal scenario, microbial oils would still be more expensive than cultivated palm oil, and in the most likely scenario, microbial oils would be about four times more expensive. “I do not know who is going to pay for it,” Lee said. “However, if more valuable products such as amino acids or proteins can be produced with oil, microbial oils may be able to compete with traditional palm oil.”

Prices may be less important if environmentally conscious consumers are willing to accept higher prices for palm oil-free products.

In order to be successful, Chuck said, microbial alternatives must be accompanied by regulatory policies that gradually remove unstable palm oil and help producing countries diversify their economies.

Subsidies or carbon taxes can also improve the outlook for yeast oils, as the carbon footprint of microbial oils is likely to be less than palm oil grown on deforested land. However, emissions from the complete life cycle of yeast oils have not yet been studied in detail. “How do we make sure we don’t replace it with something terrible,” Chuck said.

Sustainable palm oil panel spokeswoman Sarah Cowling wrote in an email that more sustainable forestry is needed to curb the immediate effects of palm oil production before any microbial oil can be made available.

“Our position is that palm oil can be produced sustainably,” said Diana Kalil, founder of the Consortium of Small Palm Oil Studies in Indonesia. He added that deforestation could be prevented by helping smallholder farmers increase the yield of the current oil palm crop.

In fact, with 70 million tons of oil produced each year, there is room for more than one solution. According to Chuck, microbial oils do not have to replace all or even most traditional palm oil production to have significant environmental benefits. They just need to be able to stem the growth of the industry and start by replacing palm oil with more expensive products such as cosmetics, a strategy that companies like C16 Biosciences and Xylome are pursuing.

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