The margarine and soap industries could benefit from British research into improving techniques for the harvesting of oil palm fruits in Malaysia and South East Asia.
Researchers at the Open University's Oxford Research Unit have been granted funding of Pounds 155,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to collaborate with Unilever and the University of Western Australia to find how to stop palms shedding fruit when the bunches are cut - resulting in the loss of some of the harvest.
Head of the research, Daphne Osborne said: "Economically it is particularly valuable to Malaysia's vast oil palm plantations which have become more important than the more expensive, traditional rubber plantations. But the British economy is also affected, as companies like Unilever have some of their largest plantations there, and many of their products rely on these palms - the most obvious being Palmolive soap."
The research centre has been studying the general shedding process in plants, with particular interest in oil palms, whose bunches can weigh from 5kg to 45kg, and bear hundreds of fruit.
Professor Osborne's team will use mutant oil palms and plants that cannot shed their leaves or fruits, like certain bean seedlings and mutant fodder lupins, to isolate the enzymes which break down cell walls and thereby promote shedding. Retaining the fruit in the palm for longer means that they continue to accumulate the valuable oil.
Hereward Corley, coordinator of Unilever's Plant Breeding International centre in Cambridge, said that palm oil was now the world's largest vegetable oil and made up 40 per cent of the global market. Although Unilever has some plantations it relies on the open market for its products.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia are also working with the British, because the fodder lupin is vital to the Australian agricultural and feed industry, and it is hoped that understanding the mutant lupins that do not shed fruit will aid their research.