The safflower plant is one of the oldest crops known to man. Used by the ancient Egyptians in dyes, oils derived from safflower seeds are today used as a sustainable replacement for fossil-fuel-derived oil in a wide variety of products and industrial processes. Researchers at Australia’s CSIRO have now developed a new “super-high” oleic safflower that could make the crop even more attractive to growers and industry.
Safflower seeds produce two different types of oil: monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic acid) and polyunsaturated fatty acid (linoleic acid). While both have their uses, it is the valuable oleic acid that is used as a replacement to petroleum-based feedstocks in the manufacture of plastics, lubricants and cosmetics. Although safflower seed oil contains the highest level of purity of oleic acid of any plant oil, the polyunsaturated oil it also produces oil causes headaches for industrial use because it is unstable and difficult to remove during oil processing.
Using gene silencing technology, Dr Allan Green, Deputy Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, and his team have boosted the level of desirable oleic acid while cutting the level of linoleic acid in safflower seeds by switching off oleic acid's conversion to the undesirable polyunsaturates.
"We have succeeded in dramatically lowering the polyunsaturates to below three per cent, thereby raising the monounsaturate oleic acid to over 90 per cent purity," Dr Green said.
The team says the news “super high” oleic safflower produces a versatile and valuable industrial raw material that combines the high purity required for industrial chemical production with the tremendous stability that allows it to be directly used in industrial lubricants.
The team believes that, because safflower is a very hardy and adaptable crop that does well in warm-season conditions and is expected to cope with the predicted stresses of climate change, the new safflower type could create a new crop industry in Australia.
"Safflower is an old crop known from ancient times, but it is very minor crop in Australia today because of the low local demand for its current oil quality type," said Dr Jody Higgins, Senior Manager Commercial Grain Technologies at the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), which partnered with the CSIRO on the research as part of the Crop Biofactories Initiative.
"Our market intelligence has shown that global demand for high purity oleic acid oil could require over 100,000 hectares of 'super-high' oleic safflower, which is comparable to the size of the cotton industry in Australia," Dr Higgins said. "The Crop Biofactories Initiative will engage in further discussions with a number of local and international companies to develop production of this high value safflower crop in Australia."