Looking at its Latin name, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the desert plant Jojoba originated in China.
But the Latin binomial – Simmondsia chinensis – was the result of a mistake by a 17th century German botanist called Johann Link.
Working in Berlin, Link was sent plants from around the world to classify. When the samples of Jojoba arrived he seems to have believed – perhaps due to unclear handwriting on the label – that the batch had come from China.
So he gave the sample the genus name Buxus and the species name chinensis.
Later the British botanist Thomas Nuttall reclassified the scrubby plant after seeing it growing in its native habitat near San Diego. He also changed the genus name to Simmondsia. But the species identifier chinensis is still used today because the convention is to keep the name that was first selected.
However, a new paper in the Science Advances journal is suggesting that the Chinese could soon become leading producers of Jojoba oil – a highly prized commodity made from the plant’s nut.
The oil – which is actually a liquid wax— is used in cosmetics and as an industrial lubricant. Yet supply is short. The only other natural source of similar long-chain wax esters – the technical term for the oil compound – is the sperm whale. Hunting of whales to harvest the wax almost led to their extinction, before the practice was banned in 1971.
So why not just cultivate Jojoba? The problem is they are rather particular plants. While they grow happily in arid conditions, Jojoba plants only flower and produce nuts if they have received water at just the right time in their growth cycle, and if the temperature is just right too.
That is why scientists have tried for decades to find a more controllable way of producing Jojoba oil substitutes through synthesis or transgenics.
Now scientists from Huazhong Agricultural University think they may have found a way to boost production by taking the relevant genes of the Jojoba plant and putting them into the rapeseed.
The researchers started out by mapping the Jojoba plant’s incredibly long and ancient genome and discovering that the plant shares an ancestry with grapes, peaches and cacao.
They then identified the genes responsible for the production and storage of the all-important wax esters and posited that they could be used to modify other plants, such as rapeseed, which already stores a lot of oil itself.
Other scientists have tried similar experiments with other plants in the past but without the benefit of detailed gene mapping. In previous cases the attempts to alter the oil content have damaged how the substitute plants germinate. But the authors of the new scientific study think oilseed rape might behave differently because there are chemical similarities in the way it and Jojoba make their oil.
With high quality Jojoba oil trading for almost $60 a kilo, any affordably-priced substitute would be quickly seized upon by the industries that need it.
No wonder that the paper’s lead scientist Guo Liang believes that his team might have struck “liquid gold”.
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