Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, appearing in half of all grocery items and seven out of every ten personal care products. It is responsible for the crunchiness of tortilla chips, the cleansing power of detergents, and the smoothness of toothpaste. It is additionally feasible to utilize this as a bio-fuel. Global palm oil usage has increased by 73% since 2016.
However, palm oil, and the world’s insatiable need for it, is a concern. Clearing forests to create space for oil palm plantations is a major contributor to tropical deforestation: Between 1972 and 2015, the world’s two major palm oil producing nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, lost 16% and 47% of their forests to the crop, respectively.
Deforestation is linked to a host of environmental problems, such as climate change, soil fertility issues, and poor water quality, among others. Biodiversity suffers a severe blow too, with studies estimating that mammal diversity declines by up to 90 percent when forests are slashed to plant oil palms.
Out of necessity, scientists have begun exploring into alternative sources of palm oil, and they have turned to microbial oils—those derived from yeast, as well as other microorganisms like algae—which were discovered during World War I but then vanished once the conflict finished.
The technique is actually quite ancient, but it has never been widely adopted in industry. This year, a business called Colipi chose to culture and manipulate microbes in order to create a synthetic version of palm oil.
So far, scientists have identified more than 40 algae and 70 yeast strains that are oleaginous, or oil-rich. To extract the oil in the lab, the microorganisms must first be cultivated, often in agar petri dishes, before being transferred to glass flasks or stainless-steel brewing tanks.
They are fed oxygen and sugar—anything ranging from cane sugar to molasses—which kick-starts fermentation and causes the cells to multiply. When the microbes reach a critical mass, which takes a few days, they are popped open to release the oil within.
The tricky part is optimizing the process to extract the most oil.
Seraphim Papanikolaou, a leader in the field of oleaginous yeast research at the Agricultural University of Athens, has previously obtained oil yields of up to 83 percent, or 8.3 grams of oil for every 10 grams of yeast—the “best reported in literature,” he claims. However, “it’s not very difficult to get quantities of 50 to 55 percent.”
Microbes as miniature factories
These very high yields are part of what makes microbial oil appealing as a palm oil substitute. Furthermore, microbial oils appear to be more environmentally benign than palm oil.
One of the most appealing aspects of microbial oil is that the organisms that produce it may be altered utilizing synthetic biology’s engineering and computer techniques.
Reference- National Geographic, Wiley Online Library, Colipi website, Horizon, Research & Markets website