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MIT Researchers have Developed a Microbial Oil to Replace Palm Oil

Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf is a law graduate and freelance journalist with a keen interest in tech reporting.

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The most widely used vegetable oil worldwide is palm oil. Everything from sauces, bread, and crackers to soaps and cosmetics uses it. However, because palm trees can only be used to produce palm oil close to the equator, manufacturers frequently clear these areas of their tropical rainforests and wetlands to make a place for plantations. This destroys wildlife habitats and results in startling amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a recent study, Southeast Asia may be responsible for 0.75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to the rise of the palm industry. Not to mention the current spread of palm trees in South America and West Africa. Orangutans, which come in three kinds and are currently all categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Kinds, a global list of endangered species, are among the well-known mammals threatened by palm oil destruction.

To address these challenges, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now developed a ‘Microbial Oil’ to replace palm oil. David Heller, Shara Ticku, and Harry McNamara, who are now all MIT alumni, founded C16 Biosciences to serve as a clean alternative to one of the world’s most common ingredients – palm oil.

“To respond to increasing demand over the last few decades, large palm producers usually inappropriately seize land,” Heller explains. “They’ll literally slash and burn tropical rainforests to the ground, drive out indigenous people, they’ll kill or drive out local wildlife, and they’ll replace everything with hectares and hectares of palm oil plantations. That land conversion process has been emitting something like a gigaton of CO2 per year, just for the expansion of palm oil.”

Microbial Oil: A Clean Alternative to Palm Oil

The MIT alumni decided to experiment with synthetic biology to develop a sustainable substitute for palm oil. The concept served as C16 Biosciences’ first impetus. With a substitute for palm oil that it obtains from oil-producing yeast, which ferments sugars in a method akin to making beer, C16 is currently completing that aim on a large scale. C16 makes every attempt to raise awareness of the issues related to the palm oil business, which the company feels are unappreciated despite palm oil’s pervasive use in our culture.

The initial product from C16, called Torula Oil, is more expensive than conventional palm oil, but Heller points out that this is because businesses don’t take into account the costs of palm oil to society and the environment. In its efforts to disrupt the $60 billion palm oil sector, C16 has a lot of advantages, he adds. For example, it is much simpler to increase the productivity of C16’s precise fermentation process than it is to enhance agricultural practices. In addition, C16 anticipates that as the company expands, its prices will decrease.

According to Heller, C16 is presently concentrating on forming partnerships with significant personal care brands and anticipates announcing several significant transactions soon. In the future, C16 also intends to substitute its product for palm oil in culinary goods, albeit that goal is still a few years away due to additional regulations.

“The oil palm tree is amazing in terms of the yields it generates, but the location needed for the crop is in conflict with what’s essential in our ecosystem: tropical rainforests,” Heller says. “There’s a lot of excitement when it comes to microbial palm alternatives. A lot of brands have been under pressure from consumers and even governments who are feeling the urgency around climate and are feeling the urgency from consumers to make changes to get away from an incredibly destructive oil ingredient.”


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