Biotechnology and the improvement of oil crops - Genes, dreams and realities

Denis J. Murphy*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    12 Citations (Scopus)


    During the past decade, there have been many optimistic claims concerning the potential of novel oil-based products from genetically engineered crops, particularly for the manufacture of a new generation of renewable, carbon-neutral, industrial materials. Such claims have been underpinned by an impressive series of scientific advances that have resulted in the isolation of genes encoding most of the enzymes directly involved in oil biosynthesis. In some cases, these enzymes have even been re-engineered by site-directed or random mutagenesis to allow production of new fatty acid profiles that are not present in any existing organism. This has opened up the prospect of engineering 'designer oil crops' to produce novel fatty acids with chain lengths from C8 to C24 and with a wide range of industrially useful functionalities, including hydroxylation, epoxidation, and conjugated and non-conjugated double or triple bonds. However, there remain significant technical challenges before this promise of designer transgenic crops is likely to be translated into large-scale commercial reality. For example, it has proved surprisingly difficult to engineer high levels of novel fatty acids in genetically engineered transgenic plants, although many wild type seeds can readily accumulate 90-95% of a single fatty acid in their storage oil. Another complication is the recent discovery of multiple pathways of triacylglycerol biosynthesis and the difficulty in ensuring that novel fatty acids are only channelled towards storage triacylglycerols and not to membrane or signalling lipids in major target crops like rapeseed. New findings from our lab have suggested that there may also be problems with the tissue specificity of some of the 'seed-specific' gene promoters that are commonly used in transgenic crops. There are also considerable and often underestimated challenges associated with the economics, management and public acceptability of all transgenic crops, even for non-food use. In most cases the projections of petroleum reserves over the next few decades make it unlikely that crop-derived commodity products that substitute for petroleum will be competitive. Also the scale of crop production required to generate millions of tonnes of commodity oils, e.g., for biodegradable plastics, is likely to seriously impinge on food production at a time of increasing global populations, and is therefore unlikely to be acceptable. An alternative strategy to transgenic oil crops is to use molecular breeding techniques in order to develop new crops that already synthesise high levels of novel fatty acids of interest. Finally, the most promising market sectors and product ranges for the future development of oil crop biotechnology will be discussed.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)67-77
    Number of pages11
    JournalPhytochemistry Reviews
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2002


    • Biopolymers
    • Commodities
    • Designer oil crops
    • Fatty acids
    • Molecular pharming
    • New crops
    • Therapeutics


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