The discovery of a gene responsible for the production of sandalwood oil has been hailed as the catalyst for wide-ranging and significant new opportunities for Western Australia's ever-growing sandalwood industry.
Sandalwood, one of WA's first exports, has entered a new era thanks to a team of researchers at The University of Western Australia, the University of British Columbia, and the Forest Products Commission.
Funded by the Australian Research Council, the team took nucleic acid from oil-producing tissues in sandalwood, from which a library of expressed genes was created.
DNA sequencing of the library revealed several terpene synthase genes. One of these, santalene synthase, was found to be responsible for the biosynthesis of four main essential oil components of sandalwood and in proportions almost identical to those found in nature.
UWA scientists, Professors Julie Plummer and Emilio Ghisalberti, as well as Dr Chris Jones, who head up the research team, said the opportunity to go to Canada and work in Professor Joerg Bohlmann's laboratory at the University of British Columbia, had accelerated the discovery.
The State Government pioneered tropical and native sandalwood plantation research more than twenty years ago respectively at the Ord River Irrigation Scheme and in Wheatbelt districts.
FPC's Manager of Seed Technologies, Dr Liz Barbour, said the discovery of the gene would open many new opportunities to add value to the sandalwood industry.
"The greatest outcome of this research is that we now have the means by which to measure responses in oil production as a result of new plantation methods.
"The FPC's trial plantings take seven years for tropical sandalwood and 15 years for native sandalwood, before a clear picture of this response can be measured. As a result of this research, FPC will know within months the response to particular treatments.
"Additionally, trees may be selected for their high oil-producing capacity and there are a number of biotechnological applications, the most important being to aid our understanding of disease resistance and assist in the conservation of the species.
"The collaboration has enabled FPC to combine the new age of biotechnology with a classic forestry system. Both have very different and important roles, but when pooled will enable FPC to guide Western Australia to be leaders in plantation sandalwood production," Dr Barbour said.
Sandalwood oil is still highly regarded as a base note ingredient in the finest perfumes, and acts as a fixative. The oils are also used in medicine, incense and soaps. Sandalwood timber is much sought-after for use in furniture manufacture.
Sandalwood oil is made up of many different components to make the unique earthy smell found in the heartwood of sandalwood trees. Whilst prized for perfumes, the trees need the oils for disease resistance.
Two types of sandalwood are being researched, the native sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, which was one of our State's earliest earners, and the tropical variety, Santalum album.
Jonathan Smith (Communications Branch FPC) (+61 8) 9475 8888 / (+61 4) 08 944 760
Janine MacDonald (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 5563 / (+61 4) 32 637 716