Grain could drive new Australian oil trade

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Image of safflower oil

Hopes are high that the CSIRO/GRDC development of super-high oleic safflower oil will catalyse innovative opportunities for the Australian oilseed industry in the growing global markets for renewable bio-based industrial products.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

Key points

  • Safflower engineered by CSIRO produces levels of oleic acid that can replace some petrochemicals in the manufacture of plastics, paints, resins and many other industrial oils
  • Commercialisation of the new safflower oil is underway by Australian company GO Resources, the licensee of the technology
  • Final testing of crop performance under field conditions and deregulation activities (associated with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) are in progress
  • The ability to use plants as ‘biofactories’ is a cornerstone of the bioeconomy, a ‘green’ production system essential to future environmental stability and economic growth 

Australia is taking the lead in a global race to transition industrial oils from fossil fuels to renewable crops

The oil oozing out of the oilseed presses at the CSIRO pilot plant facility in Werribee, Victoria, is a harbinger of the productivity possible within a greener, more sustainable ‘bioeconomy’.

The oil was extracted from safflower plants specially engineered in Australia to replace non-renewable petrochemical feedstocks in the production of plastics, paints, lubricants and many more industrial oils and oleochemicals (chemicals derived from plant and animal fats).

Dubbed SHOSO – for super-high oleic safflower oil – it is the culmination of 11 years of investment and research within the GRDC and CSIRO Crop Biofactories Initiative (CBI).

The technology now has a commercial partner: Australian clean-technology company GO Resources, which has an exclusive licence to commercialise SHOSO for the high-value industrial oil market.

Image of Alan Green

Dr Allan Green, research director for the CSIRO bioproducts program, which is further developing the super-high oleic safflower  oil invented under the CSIRO/GRDC Crop Biofactories Initiative.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

In the process, the CBI, GO Resources and Australian growers will turn into reality an idea that was once the province of science fiction – namely, the ability to precisely re-engineer a plant’s biochemical activities to meet the chemical needs of advanced industries from a sustainable agricultural resource.

That is what Dr Allan Green, research director of CSIRO’s bioproducts program, means by the term ‘biofactories’.

That SHOSO is being developed and launched in Australia reflects an early CSIRO lead in developing viable biofactory technology. 

“Our plant oils research team has shown that we can tailor safflower to produce extremely high levels of oleic acid in the seeds,” Dr Green says.

“This technology is a great example of how engineered plant oils can provide the high chemical purity levels needed for use as industrial raw materials and substitutes for current petrochemicals.”

According to market research by GO Resources, the estimated value of the worldwide industrial oils and oleochemical market is in excess of $30 billion a year, and growing.


The science behind the oil

Plants are naturally adept at taking simple compounds – such as carbon dioxide gas – and converting them into more complex biochemicals, including a range of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids important to human nutrition.

This biochemical wizardry occurs using a plentiful energy source, sunlight, and without the extremes of temperature (or the toxicity of catalysts) often seen in conventional industrial chemistry.

Image of a safflower harvest

Next oil boom: CSIRO researcher Shoko Okada processes a bountiful harvest of super-high oleic safflower plants grown in Kununurra, Western Australia, in 2014 as part of an OGTR-approved field trial.

PHOTO: CSIRO

What makes biological chemistry possible are a special class of molecules called enzymes.

Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions that would otherwise need extra inputs (temperature, pressure, energy) to occur.

An organism’s cache of enzymes defines its biochemical possibilities, and one important role of genes is to encode (and transmit across generations) the information needed to make a species’ entire cache of enzymes.

In safflower seed, however, this knack for transforming compounds means that enzymes are present that convert oleic acid into other less desirable fatty acids. In the process, the oleic acid content of safflower seed can be diminished to as low as 20 per cent.

To drive that level up to the 93 per cent seen in SHOSO – the highest of any commercially available plant-derived oil worldwide – required inactivating two oil-processing enzymes that are active within the safflower seed during seed fill.

This was achieved not by targeting the enzymes themselves, but rather by inactivating the genes encoding these enzymes in a process known as ‘gene silencing’.

Such precision at inactivating genes in the safflower genome was possible using technology developed and patented by CSIRO called RNA interference (RNAi) technology.

Image of Craig Wood

Molecular plant breeder Dr Craig Wood leads the science behind CSIRO’s super-high oleic safflower project.

PHOTO: CSIRO

The process requires inserting back into safflower, fragments of DNA from its own genome – fragments that guide the silencing process, making it highly specific for the targeted genes. The extra DNA means the modified safflower plants are classified as GM, so their commercialisation will first require approval from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).

“This is the most unobtrusive form of GM technology currently available, with no GM material in the end-use oil products,” says Dr Craig Wood, the lead scientist responsible for engineering the new trait. “Further, the silencing only occurs in the seed so that the plant itself remains unaffected by the transgenes,” he says.

The end result is the accumulation of oleic acid within the safflower seed, while the levels of undesirable saturated and polyunsaturated fats decline.

Prior to commencing this project, CSIRO and the GRDC carefully reviewed oilseed options to find the most suitable species for inclusion in Australian agriculture.

Dr Wood says that safflower was selected due to its negligible use as a food crop and the existence already of mechanisms to easily segregate GM safflower from mainstream cereal and oilseed crops.

“For a feedstock oil for industrial applications we then had to ask just how high we could push the purity levels of oleic acid content,” Dr Wood says.

“In the end, we reached as high as 93 per cent oleic acid – higher than any oil in nature. With that kind of purity we established that the oil derived from the safflower can be used directly as an oleochemical feedstock.”

Commercialisation

GO Resources Pty Ltd is an Australian clean-technology company specialising in renewable and biodegradable raw materials for use in industrial and oleochemical markets.

GO Resources views the safflower oil as a major advancement, both commercially and environmentally, and as a raw material to meet the increasing demand for bio-derived feedstocks for industrial applications. The early focus is on the biolubricant, biochemical and biomaterial industries.

Trevor Gawne, a founding director of GO Resources, says that it is SHOSO’s purity combined with stability and biodegradability that makes it attractive for industrial uses, while the plant’s hardiness and water use efficiency makes it a viable option for use in Australian crop rotations.

Dr Green says the reason oleic acid is especially suited to industrial applications is due to its chemical structure. There are 18 carbon atoms within the carbon chain ‘backbone’. The chemical bond between the 9th and 10th carbon is unlike the rest in the backbone and can be broken. This results in the oleic acid chain being split into two nine-carbon atom fragments that are the basic building blocks of bioplastics, such as bionylon.

Image of safflower oil plant

CSIRO chief executive, Larry Marshall (kneeling), gets an up-close view of super-high oleic safflower oil being processed at CSIRO's pilot plant in Werribee, Victoria.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

“Since the oil provides the first step towards renewable plastics, there is a large existing market for the plant-based oil, replacing petrochemical feedstocks,” Dr Green says.

A second potential end-use is in lubricants, arising from the fact that oleic acid is resistant to chemical oxidation, but is ultimately biodegradable and renewable.

“There are uses for these lubricants in engines, especially in sensitive environments, such as marine and forestry settings,” Dr Green says. “Transformer coils in the electricity grid also contain mineral oils that can be replaced with this more environmentally friendly plant-based oil.”

CSIRO pilot plant facilities in Melbourne’s outer suburb of Werribee have now been equipped to provide capability to process the GM plants, crush the oil and provide proof-of-concept testing of the oil to its putative end users.

The vision is for the safflower plants to be grown in Australia along with processing of the oil and some value-adding work.

However, Australia is not a big industrial base, Dr Green says, but we are at the doorstep of large manufacturing nations of Asia, presenting great opportunities for export of SHOSO and value-added industrial products to the region.

Safflower in the paddock

World best

A key figure within the GRDC–CSIRO Crop Biofactories Initiative, Dr Surinder Singh, has been named one of the top 20 translational researchers in the world by the influential science publisher Nature Publishing Group.

The list is considered an indicator of the most successful emerging biotechnologies and is compiled by patent analytics firm IP Checkups following examination of 2014’s most active scientists for patenting. Dr Singh is the only plant biotechnologist and Australian to make the list. 

“This is a significant honour for Australia, CSIRO, the Plant Oil Engineering Group and the GRDC,” Dr Singh says.

As well as producing SHOSO, Dr Singh and his team leads the world in the highly competitive quest to reconfigure the fatty-acid metabolism of canola, permitting a land-based plant to make the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial to human health but that are currently sourced unsustainably from wild-caught marine fish.

Listed at number 10, the citation highlights the remarkably innovative strategy deployed by Dr Singh over the last decade within the GRDC–CSIRO alliance and the close attention paid to the scientific process by the CSIRO patent attorney, Dr Rob de Feyter, responsible for the highly cited patents.

SHOSO-producing safflower plants have been in field trials since 2013-14, with the trials increasing in scope over time.

Dr Green says the plants “performed beautifully”. The trials will continue for another two years and will generate data about the crop’s on-farm performance, and also provide information needed by the OGTR to sanction the commercial release of a GM crop, a process known as deregulation.

With deregulation of the GM variety beginning in 2015 – and the need for a stewardship protocol to accompany its release – the variety will reach the paddocks in 2018.

More broadly, Dr Green hints that GM safflower is actually a lead product in a more extensive bioproducts pipeline under development at CSIRO.

One area showing promise is the idea of producing oils in the leaves of crop plants rather than the seeds. This would create a commercially viable product from a crop’s biomass that now mostly has little value and also increase the amount of oil any one plant can produce.

He describes the leaf-oil project as being in its early days, much as he described the safflower work in the July–August 2012 issue of Ground Cover. However, there is no denying he is excited about progress, describing it with a true scientific understatement as “promising”.

 

More information:

Dr Allan Green,

allan.green@csiro.au;

Trevor Gawne,
trevor.gawne@go-resources.com.au

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GRDC Project Code CSP00167

Region National, South