SINGAPORE: For Professor Teh Bin Tean, the deputy director of the National Cancer Centre, the endeavour to map the complete genetic blueprint of durian began with a love for the fruit.
“As a scientist, I was also curious about what genes are behind the durian’s smell, taste and spiny husk,” he said.
A team of five researchers from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and Duke-NUS Medical School began the project in early 2015.
The team used state-of-the-art sequencing platforms to map the genome of the Musang King or Mao Shan Wang durian. According to the team, they received funding of S$500,000 from a group of anonymous durian lovers.
The team’s analysis, published in the journal Nature Genetics, revealed that the durian genome comprises about 46,000 genes, almost double that of humans who have 23,000 genes.
Comparing gene activity patterns from different parts of the durian plant led to the identification of a class of genes called MLGs (methionine gamma lyases), which regulate the production of odour compounds called volatile sulphur compounds (VSC), the press release stated.
"Our analysis revealed that VSC production is turbocharged in durian fruits, which fits with many people's opinions that durian smell has a 'sulphury' aspect," said Duke-NUS's Prof Patrick Tan, who is also co-lead author.
The durian genome sequence will be a useful resource for durian agronomy research - for example in identifying, and possibly modifying genes involved in disease resistance, drought tolerance and flavour profiles.
“We can look at the genes (responsible for) the high sugar level in the durian. Theoretically, it’s possible to create a diabetic-friendly durian,” said Prof Teh.
The professor said one of the challenges was that plant genome is more complex than human genome as it contains a lot of repetitive sequences.
The team has additionally traced the durian back 65 million years to the cacao plant, which is used to make chocolate.
The technological expertise developed by the team may be applied to other plants, including those that may have medicinal value.
The team has also donated the durian genome data to the National Parks Board, where they hope it will spur further durian research and education in Singapore and the region.