Can Synthetic Palm Oil Help Save the World’s Tropical Forests?

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this story is basically appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of climate desk Cooperation.

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Tom Jeffries and Tom Kelleher met at Rutgers University in the 1970s while studying industrially useful microbes. Jeffries ran a yeast genomics program at the US Department of Agriculture; Kelleher worked for decades in the biomedical industry with biologics such as insulin, which are produced by genetically modified microbes in giant fermentation vats. In 2007, the two reunited to form a company based on a grant from the National Science Foundation. Called xylem, the Wisconsin-based startup aimed to find better ways to produce low-carbon fuels by feeding agricultural waste into yeast.

Yet it was by chance that Jeffries and Kelleher turned their efforts a few years later to a different global environmental problem: palm oil.


The world’s cheapest and most widely used vegetable oil, palm oil production is a primary driver Deforestation and loss of biodiversity in the tropics. These and other problems with the palm oil industry, such as exploitative labor practices, have fueled interest in more sustainable alternatives over the years. But finding good alternatives has proved difficult. Other vegetable oils have similar drawbacks to palm oil, and sustainable forestry practices are not always effective in the face of increasing demand. Today, the world consumes about 70 million metric tons of palm oil each year, which is used in everything from toothpaste and oat milk to biodiesel and laundry detergent. demand is expected more than double by 2050.

But with advances in bioengineering and growing concerns about sustainability, several companies such as Xylome have developed microbial oils, which they say can offer an alternative to palm oil while avoiding its most devastating effects. They join several other synthetic biology companies—from newer Hawking ventures. Biofuels and fertilizers for lab-grown meat– Those who wish to solve environmental problems but share similar challenges to increase production and demonstrate that their approach is actually more sustainable than the products they are trying to replace .

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Last year, a startup called C16 Biosciences Opened a new lab in Manhattan to develop microbial palm oil alternatives with $20 million from Bill Gates’ Climate Solutions Investment Fund. Breakthrough Energy Enterprises, A California-based startup called kiwerdi The yeast is also working to manufacture oil using carbon from the atmosphere, and a Team Bioengineers at the University of Bath are working on growing their own strain of oil yeast. Xylome recently sent the first batches of its palm oil substitute—called “Yoil”—to several large palm oil suppliers and the FDA for testing.

Although enormous challenges exist to scale up production that can compete with cultivated palm oil, and the question remains how an emerging biotech industry in the Global North can support palm oil-based livelihoods in the Global South. These microbial oils may help to curb the continued development of palm oil, which is a threat to biodiverse regions along borders in South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. If yeast oils can achieve a price low enough to compete with trees (a big if) “it will be a huge difference when palm oil comes in,” said Kelleher, who is now Xylem’s CEO. “At that point it will all be microbial.”

During the zoom, Kelleher showed a blue photo of Xylem’s proprietary yeast strain, which was developed from an oil-producing species called lipomyces starkey, Through the microscope, the yeast looked like dish soap suds. “You’re looking at yeast that’s literally crushed,” he said. “They are crushed by the outer wall because of the amount of oil produced in these yeasts.” Fed on corn syrup, the genetically altered strain is able to deliver the majority of its total weight to lipids. “They do exactly what we do if we keep feeding ourselves sugar,” Kelleher said. “They grow up.”

In 2013, Jeffries, now president of Xylem, noticed that the oil of this strain was remarkably similar to palm oil, which is prized for its distinctive mix of saturated and unsaturated fats. This mixture is solid at room temperature and liquid at body temperature—perfect for chocolate coatings, soaps, and cosmetics. Other parts of the versatile palm oil are used in fuels, solvents, lubricants and many other products, notably in China, India and Indonesia.

The similarity of yeast oil to palm oil was discovered by chance – xylem was going for diesel. But Jeffries and Kelleher realized that there might be something to palm oil substitutes when Kelleher’s daughter told them about a growing interest in palm oil-free cosmetics, a response to environmental concerns identified over the years. is to remove. international activism Targeting volatile palm oil.

However, as of 2018, palm oil production is responsible for less than 1 percent of deforestation globally. report good From the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it is a major cause of deforestation in the tropics. For example, in Borneo, palm oil cultivation has accounted for more than half of all deforestation in the past two decades. Future demand could contribute to even more deforestation. The same report found that more than 1 million square miles of biodiversity hot spots, potentially affecting more than 40 percent of all threatened bird, mammal and amphibian species, from orangutans and tigers to flycatchers and elephants, were identified as oil palm hot spots. Farming can be dangerous. It also creates deforestation greenhouse gas emissions, because carbon-rich peat built up under virgin forests is drained, and trees are burned to clear land for planting.

Recognizing these effects, suppliers—are working through organizations such as Round Table Conference on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has certified palm oil supply chains since 2007 – has called for ways to increase monitoring of palm oil production to ensure that crops are not cultivated on lands rich in biodiversity or carbon. She goes. Janice Lee, an environmental scientist who studies palm oil at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that while a growing number of palm growers attest, the approach has limitations. For example, it can be difficult to certify producers with small holdings, which collectively represent the majority of palm oil production in some areas. “Certification is not a silver bullet,” she said. About 20 percent of palm oil production is certified by the RSPO.

Finding a palm oil substitute has proved even more challenging. Other tropical oils—such as coconut oil—have lower yields than palm oil and would have an even greater impact if cultivated on a similar scale. Other non-tropical oils – such as soy or corn oil – can be grown outside of the biodiverse tropics, but they require additional processing to replace palm oil in many applications. That processing is expensive, and it produces trans fats, which the FDA banned in the United States in 2015.

Kelher and Jeffries decided to sell their yeast as a better alternative. Microorganisms in his laboratory produce an oil with a lipid profile nearly identical to that of palm oil. “Bugs”, as they refer to yeast, may also be fed with materials that do not require tropical agriculture, such as corn or sugarcane, or waste materials, such as corn husks and wheat stalks, which Can significantly reduce production cost . Microbial oils can be produced anywhere, reducing the distance between the factory and the consumer.

The challenge has been to make yeast juice up the oils at a scale and price that can compete with conventional agriculture – and to do this quickly enough to prevent destructive oil palm growth.

Advances in technology can help. In its Manhattan lab, C16 Biosciences is optimizing conditions to keep its genetically modified yeast strains happy. Christopher Chuck, a chemical engineer on the University of Bath team, is also working on a more productive yeast strain, but instead of modifying microbes with gene-editing tools, his team relies on a process of directed evolution. This involves exposing yeast colonies to a regimen of stress to induce them to produce more oil from cheap feedstocks. Chuck said this approach could lead to stronger microbes; It also avoids the rules that govern genetically modified organisms.

Xylome, which owns patents on methods for genetically modifying yeast species lipomyces starkey, is working to increase the yield of its corn-sugar-based strain. Another strain in development could be to feed waste products from ethanol production to produce oil, which Kelleher claims could eventually produce an oil at half the current price of crude Malaysian palm oil. Research over the past decades on the use of such fibrous, “cellulosic” feedstocks for biofuels has shown this to be an elusive target, but Kelleher and Jeffries are confident the company can get this approach to work. . “Cellulosics are eventually going to prevail,” Jeffries said.

Bioengineer Jeffrey Linger of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory comments that such microbial oil alternatives are worth developing, although he thinks these companies have a hard road ahead of them to develop workable strains that can be grown on a large scale. “There are a lot of knobs that you can turn, so I don’t want to say it’s impossible,” he said. “I don’t even want to say it’s easy.”

Even with the better strains, there are limits to how far microbes can be pushed. In The “Limits-of-Science” ModelChuck’s group envisions a way to reach price parity of microbial oil with palm oil in the future. They found that even in an ideal scenario, microbial oil would still be more expensive than cultivated palm oil, and that microbial oil is more likely about four times more expensive in the best-case scenario. “I don’t know who will pay for it,” remarked Lee….


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