Can synthetic palm oil help save the world’s rainforests?

Via Zoom, Kelleher showed off a bluish photo of Xylome’s proprietary yeast strain, which grew from an oil-producing species called Lipomyces starkeyi. Under the microscope, the yeast is like dish soap coming off. “You are looking at literally distorted yeast,” he said. “They’re crushed to the outside because of the amount of oil that’s produced from these yeasts.” Anorexic with corn syrup, the genetically engineered strain is capable of providing most of its total weight for lipids. “They do exactly what we do if we keep feeding ourselves sugar,” Kelleher said. “They get big.”

In 2013, Jeffries, now president of Xylome, noticed that the oil from this strain was very similar to palm oil, prized for its distinctive blend of saturated and unsaturated fats. This blend 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 as fuels, solvents, lubricants and in many other products, especially in China, India and Indonesia.

The similarity of enamel oil to palm oil was discovered by accident — Xylome is being used in diesel engines. But Jeffries and Kelleher realized there might be something to replace palm oil when Kelleher’s daughter told him of the growing interest in palm oil-free cosmetics to address identified environmental concerns. fixed for many years international activities targeting unsustainable palm oil.

Although palm oil production is responsible for less than 1% of global deforestation, according to 2018 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it is a major cause of deforestation in the tropics. In Borneo, for example, oil palm cultivation has accounted for more than half of deforestation in the past two decades. Future demand could contribute to more deforestation. The same report also indicates that more than 1 million square miles of biodiversity hotspots could be threatened by oil palm farming, potentially affecting more than 40% of all bird, animal and plant species. Mammals and amphibians are threatened, from orangutans and tigers to flycatchers and elephants. This deforestation also creates greenhouse gas emissions, as the carbon-rich peat that accumulates beneath primary forests is drained, and trees are burned for land.

Aware of these impacts, suppliers — working through organizations such as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has certified palm oil supply chains since 2007 – has sought to strengthen monitoring of palm oil production to ensure crops are not grown on biodiverse or carbon-rich soil. Janice Lee, an environmental scientist who studies palm oil at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that while more and more palm growers are certified, the method has limitations. For example, it is difficult to certify individual growers, who represent the majority of palm oil production in some regions. “Certification is not a silver bullet,” she said. About 20% of palm oil production is RSPO certified.

Finding an alternative to palm oil is even more difficult. Other tropical oils – like coconut oil – have a lower yield than oil palm and would have a larger impact if grown on the same scale. Other non-tropical oils – such as soybean or corn oil – can be grown outside of biodiverse tropics, but they require additional processing to replace palm oil in many applications. That processing is expensive, and it creates trans fats, which the FDA banned in the United States in 2015.

Kelleher and Jeffries decided to market their yeast as a better alternative. Microorganisms in their laboratory produce an oil with a lipid composition close to that of palm oil. “Bugs,” as they refer to yeast, can also be fed with materials that do not require tropical agriculture, such as corn or sugarcane, or waste materials, such as corn husks and rice stalks. noodles, can greatly reduce production costs. Microbial oils can also be produced anywhere, reducing the distance between the factory and the consumer.


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