Scientists from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics have identified a gene that could help pave the way for increased production of palm oil, which accounts for 45% of the world’s edible oil.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists identified the VIR gene as responsible for fruit colour. The majority of the oil palm fruit harvested in Malaysia and Indonesia is the nigrescens variety of fruit, which has black to deep purple skin that changes little when ripe. However, in the rare virescens oil palm, fruits change colour from green to bright orange when ripe, signalling the optimal time for harvesting.

Equipped with the VIR gene knowledge, palm growers can begin to replaceigrescens palms with virescens plants, which will eventually eliminate the need for harvesters to make a judgment call on over 20 billion bunches of oil palm fruit harvested annually. This will increase the efficiency of the harvest and the oil yield from existing agricultural lands, and also help to conserve sensitive wild habitats at risk of being turned into agricultural land.

A 1% percent increase in Malaysian palm oil yield alone is worth in excess of RM 1 billion ($330 million) annually, the researchers said.