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From Koala food to jet fuel

KimberleysIt’s the iconic scent of the Australian bush, and a feature of almost every Aussie backyard, so it’s surprising that Australia only plays a small role in the multimillion-dollar global industry of our most recognisable substance. Eucalyptus trees are big business overseas. The trees are used in plantations for timber, and importantly, the leaves are harvested for their oil.

Eucalyptus oil is a fascinating product with a distinctive smell and many uses. These uses include everything from an antiseptic to a fragrance, the unique mix of chemicals ideal for applications throughout our lives. But Eucalyptus oils are not all created equally. The balance of different molecules, as produced by different eucalypt species, can make the oil more or less suited to various uses. Researchers are currently trying to breed eucalypts to produce more and different oils, hopefully leading to biofuels for use in jet planes and increased oil yields.

To start with, analysing the genomes of Eucalyptus trees can tell researchers what it is that makes certain trees produce a higher yield of desirable oil. With access to the computer power to process the data properly, Dr David Kainer from The Australian National University sequenced the genomes of 500 Oil Mallees, Eucalyptus Polybractea, to pinpoint the genetic mutations that cause their particular levels of oil production.

From the 1.5 Terabyte dataset that the sequencing produced, Dr Kainer spent hundreds of thousands of hours of processing time on the NCI supercomputer to clean up the data, prepare it for use and turn it into a statistical description of what the mutations do. He says, “Over the past few years, we’ve gotten more and more reliant on the supercomputing capability that NCI provides. If it weren’t for that, we’d be waiting years to process the DNA sequences for downstream analysis.” His hopes are that this newfound knowledge will help to produce even better varieties of Eucalyptus that yield more oil of a higher quality.

In particular, he is hoping that he can apply his findings to the oil from the Oil Mallee to form a new kind of jet fuel. Most biofuels do not store enough energy to make them viable for use in jet planes, but this biofuel, made up largely of chemicals called terpenes that are common in Eucalyptus oil, does. He says, “Using methods like this for breeding better varieties of Eucalyptus has a lot of potential for future industries. From an increase in Australian oil production to potentially all new bio fuel capabilities, we’re at the early stages of some important developments.”

Australia’s eucalypts are a major tourism drawcard for visitors to this country. They also form part of a multimillion-dollar industry that we continue to develop. Research like this enables iconic Australian businesses to develop and grow, and thereby compete in an international industry.

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