Oilseed rape is grown for its tiny black oil-containing seeds, prized for cooking oil and margarines low in saturated fat, and increasingly for biodiesel. The meal that remains after oil extraction is also used as a high protein animal feed.
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Known as a 'brassica', these plants normally disperse their seeds by a pod-shattering mechanism. Just before harvest, oilseed rape pods can shatter causing a 10-25% loss of seeds and up to 70% in some cases.
Although this mechanism is an advantage in nature, it is one of the biggest problems in farming oilseed rape. As well as losing valuable seeds, it results in runaway ‘volunteer’ seedlings that contaminate the next crop in the rotation cycle. If rape seeds are harvested early to get round the problem, immature seeds may be collected which are of an inferior quality.
Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered that by artificially introducing a hormone into the plant, they can prevent the pod-shattering process taking place. The scientists discovered that the absence of the hormone auxin in a layer of cells in the fruit is necessary for the fruit to open. Two stripes of tissue form where no auxin is present, and these separate to open the pod.
Dr Lars Østergaard from the John Innes Centre: “We need to refine the process for use in agriculture to reduce seed loss but still allowing them to be easily harvested.”
The John Innes Centre is an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research, BBSRC said: “With a growing global population we must increase food production significantly within 20 years. With current yield improvements beginning to plateau, the value of this kind of fundamental research is becoming even more significant. Knowledge gained in this way will underpin future technological developments, but it takes time to do this; 20 years from lab to field is not an unreasonable expectation in terms of time scale.”
Read more: John Innes Centre