A team of scientists in Singapore has used genetic engineering to significantly boost the oil content of some plants, New Atlas reported.

The discovery could increase yields by as much as 18%, the 10 November report said.

The research team at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) built on existing knowledge around the way oil builds up in plant seeds and edible nuts.

A protein called Wrinkled1 (WRI1) has been known for decades to play an important role in the accumulation of oils in this context, but the NTU team were able to image the molecular structure of this protein for the first time, New Atlas wrote.

With this new, detailed understanding of the protein and the way it binds to a plant’s DNA to regulate the accumulation of oil in its seeds, the team was able to make some adjustments. The team’s genetic modifications were aimed at improving the protein’s ability to bind to DNA, and the versions they produced were able to increase this ability 10-fold, subsequently boosting the oil content of the seeds, the report said.

“Being able to see exactly what WRI1 looks like and how it binds to DNA that is responsible for oil production in the plant was the key to understanding the entire process,” associate professor and study author Gao Yonggui was quoted as saying.

“WRI1 is an essential regulator that informs the plant how much oil to store in its seeds. Once we were able to visualise the ‘lock’, we then engineered the ‘key’ that can unlock the potential of WRI1.”

The experiments involved injecting modified WRI1 proteins into the leaves of Nicotiana benthamiana plants, which increased levels of a dietary lipid called triacylglycerol. Follow-up experiments comprised the same treatment on a model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which boosted the oil content in its seeds by 15%-18% compared to controls.

The next generation of this modified plant would feature the same modified WRI1 protein and produce more oil as a result, the team said.

“We know that WRI1 is a protein that binds to a plant’s DNA sequence and sets off a specific chain of instructions that regulates the accumulation of oils in the seeds,” assistant professor Ma Wei, one of the authors of the study, was quoted as saying.

“The stronger the binding – the more oil the plant will concentrate in its seeds. Therefore, we chose to improve this portion of WRI1 that binds to its target DNA, which is highly conserved across many seed-bearing plants. Being highly conserved means many species of plants will have the exact same mechanism that can be modified, so we should be able to translate our oil-yielding modification easily to many different types of crops in future.”

Crops that produce large amounts of vegetable oil, such as soyabean, sunflower and rapeseed, already contained a high percentage of oil in their seeds, so the increases demonstrated in the study were significant, the report said.

The discovery could help increase food security by increasing the nutritional value of certain foods, while reducing the pressure on agriculture, New Atlas wrote.