There is a new player in the biobased economy: the crop crambe (Crambe abyssinica) was recently discovered to be able to perform a special trick. Thanks to a breakthrough by Wageningen scientists, this plant – which is related to rapeseed –now no longer produces a cocktail of multiple fatty acids, but only the industrially important erucic and oleic acid. These fatty acids are useful for the production of lubricants and coatings, as well as valuable polymers such as nylon. This will make European industry less dependent on tropical coconut oil, palm kernel oil and fossil oils.
Scientists from Wageningen UR have managed to use crambe for the production of monounsaturated fatty acids such as erucic and oleic acid. They did this by employing massive DNA-sequencing of a target gene in over 10,000 plants with randomly induced mutations.
Higher content of valuable fatty acids
“We have found varieties of crambe in which the gene responsible for an enzyme that induces the plant to form polyunsaturated fatty acids is mutated,” says Robert van Loo, scientist at Wageningen UR’s Agricultural Research Department. “The mutated gene now ensures that the formation of the enzyme cannot be entirely completed, which directly results in a higher content of the valuable monounsaturated erucic and oleic acid.”
The scientists are now working on stable seeds of these types of crambe by crossing them and making pure lines. This will make it possible to commercially cultivate the mutated crambe. “The crossed individuals have produced seed for the first time this winter,” Van Loo notes.
Mutation breeding is a known conventional technique and results in products which may be marketed without restrictions. According to Van Loo, this is why the industry is so positive about it.
Competing with tropical oils
Crambe has for some time been seen as a means to make agriculture more diverse. The Mediterranean plant has a short growing season and its increased yield of important fatty acids means that it can compete with tropical oils.
Erucic acid is known as a raw material for slip agents – e.g. the materials that ensure that plastic sandwich bags do not stick together – Van Loo points out. It is also becoming more important as a source of lubricants and coatings. In addition, green polyamides (nylon) can be made. This would allow erucic acid to replace rapeseed oil and castor oil, as well as still controversial tropical oils such as palm kernel oil and coconut oil. Moreover, it serves as an alternative to fossil oils.
Whole new chain
“The chemical industry is anxiously waiting for vegetable oils with fewer different types of fatty acids,” says Rolf Blaauw, scientist at Wageningen UR Biobased Research. “The new varieties of crambe also bring within reach soap and detergents with less controversial plant origins.”
Blaauw is a project leader in the COSMOS consortium, a partnership of eighteen research institutes and SMEs, including the French chemicals multinational Arkema. COSMOS recently received a subsidy of 11 million euros from the EU. “We plan to further elaborate the whole chain over the next four and a half years, from seed breeding to cultivation, fatty acid separation techniques and applications,” Blaauw states. “We will also be talking to companies to consider industrial applications.”
Like to know more about this topic? Contact Robert van Loo or Rolf Blaauw or have a look at the project of Wageningen UR about crambe.