Genomics: Utilizing Genomic Editing for Sustainable Red Palm Oil Production

Palm oil, which is present in bewildering quantities of food, cosmetics and biofuels, poses a direct threat to both our health and the environment. Palm oil has high saturated fat levels that have been related to heart disease and other health problems.

It is also the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, destroying the habitat of already endangered species, including the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino. Hazardous levels of methane are emitted by palm oil refineries, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Solutions to the health and environmental problems posed by palm production are complicated, partly because of palm oil’s ubiquity, but also because alternatives lack many of the benefits of the versatile oil. That is — until now.

By applying gene editing to the production of palm oil, we can replace the need for billions of palm oil trees, helping with the environment. We can also reduce the saturated fat content of traditional palm oil by 30%. How you may ask? We can leverage the incredibly powerful tool of CRISPR-Cas9 in order to genetically modify E.coli to produce red palm oil!

CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome editing tool creating buzz in the science world. It is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous techniques of editing DNA and has a wide range of potential applications. CRISPR-Cas9 enables geneticists to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or alternating sections of the DNA sequence. The CRISPR-Cas9 system consists of two key molecules that introduce a change into the DNA. First, an enzyme called Cas9 acts as a pair of ‘gene scissors’ cutting the DNA at specific locations. Then a piece of guide RNA that consists of a small piece of designed RNA scaffold called ‘guides’ binds to the DNA thus creating a genetically modified organism. As can be seen here, we are using 3-oxoacyl-[acyl-carrier-protein] synthase 3 as the guide RNA.

According to a 2020 paper, no such genetic modifications have ever been developed in oil palm via base editing technology.

The operation timeline includes 3 steps: Pre-launch, launch and post launch.

The prelaunch stage will be lasting a few months. It will include all the preparation for the manufacturing of the palm oil. This includes, hiring researchers and directors, finding buyers, advertising, partnerships, and researching the optimum way to produce the palm oil.

As for the site itself, we will be modeling ourselves after Eli Lilly & Co, and insulin manufacturing facility. It will occupy more than 30 hectors with 10,000 bioreactors. Construction is estimated to cost around $280 million.

At launch we will be manufacturing at full scale. Each of the 10,000 bioreactors will produce 2.8 tons of palm oil per month. That’s more than 336,000 tons annually.

After launch, we’ll be refining our palm oil production, yielding healthier and higher grade palm oil. We’ll also be opening up more facilities across the globe to increase the market share of palm oil production.

Operating costs, for utilities, feedstock, and labour is 17.9 million per month. We will be selling our palm oil to customers and partners. Since we’re still refining our production, we’ll be delivering to industries that are fine with lower grade palm oil. If we’re selling at market price, we expect a revenue of 267.6 million / year and a profit of 52.8 million / year. But since we are a both a sustainable and healthy palm oil producer we could market our palm oil at a higher price, $1000. This will yield a revenue of 336 million/year or 121.2 million in profits/year.

Imagine a future where a palm oil plantation is 2,800 times more effective, helps combat climate change, and prevents the number one cause of death globally, heart disease. Imagine no more — we’re making it a reality! We will produce more than 336,000 tons of palm oil per year with E. coli! That’s 2800 times more effective than traditional plantations, meaning that we are saving more than 80,000 hectares of land each year!

Are you ready to join Project Gaea on a journey towards a healthier and greener tomorrow?

Team Members: Jessica Song, Dickson Wu, Orna Mukhopadhyay and Sarah Jiang! 💯

Ciao, I’m Anastasija, a 15 y/o interested in the intersection between bioinformatics and biotechnology! Check out my website, connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter!

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Anastasija Petrovic

I’m Anastasija, a 17-year-old interested in the intersection between biotechnology and bioinformatics. I also write about mindsets and emerging technologies!