(STAR) By Jo. Florendo B. Lontoc - Last summer was a turning point for UP Mindanao’s sago project. UPMin faculty members and researchers are now presenting their plan for research and development of the crop. The plan includes finding possible funding partners to put up a biotechnology facility in Mindanao.

The development of the project package – involving UP Mindanao’s College of Science and Mathematics – was a major step after Dr. Dulce M. Flores’s 2005 study of the sago palm as a major agricultural product. Flores, chairperson of the College’s Department of Food Science and Chemistry, heads the biotechnology program titled “Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Selected Bio-Resources in Mindanao.”

“The idea is to put to maximum use advances in science and technology, specifically biotechnology, to especially benefit indigenous peoples,” Dr. Flores says. Biotechnology is expected to utilize sago starch in the making of value-added products such as lactic acid and the bio-fuel, ethanol. “Sago is just the first and other abundant resources like nipa, kaong, and some forest species ornamentals will be included in the program,” Dr. Flores adds.

Making do

The conservation component utilizes UPMin’s remote sensing laboratory to determine the hectarage of the remaining wild sago stands in Mindanao and other places in the country. This is being handled by Prof. Vicente B. Calag. In the meantime, pests and natural friends of the wild sago palms are being studied by Professors Reynaldo Abad, UPMin vice chancellor for academic affairs Emma Bayogan, and UPMin chancellor Gilda Rivero. The ecology of sago in the wetlands is the area of Professors Fritzie Ates and Cheryl Talde. Prof. Anna Novero is studying propagation of sago palms aside from the natural shooting of the palms.

The second component is molecular profiling. “There could be unique species of sago which are better than, or have some desirable properties not present in, the species coming from neighboring countries,” Flores says. Indigenous enzymes and microorganisms useful in the conversion of sago to higher-value products are being evaluated and documented. The studies are being conducted by Professors Severo Bastian, Jennifer Peña, and Mitchell Rey Toleco.

Essential biotech

UPMin has to acquire additional facilities to be able to isolate genes from natural sago processors – such as microorganisms and enzymes in the guts of batud, a sago pest – and express it in another bacterium. This research is important in processing sago starch into valuable products.

UPMin will need a pilot plant facility to utilize a microorganism which has been identified by Flores as capable of converting starch directly into lactic acid in a one-step fermentation process. Being a novel approach, producing ethanol directly from starch will also need advanced facilities. This unique process will use a “recombinant yeast” which will express raw-starch digesting abilities and convert starch directly into ethanol.

The total cost of the sago biotechnology program, including basic equipment, is more or less P30 million. The UP System has initially earmarked seed money in the amount of P3.5 million from its Emerging Fields in Science & Technology fund. The program is set to be completed in three years.

The wonders of sago

In the wild, sago yields starch at an average of 25 tons per hectare, holding the record for being the highest starch-producing crop in the world. Rice produces six tons and corn 5.5. Sago stores starch in its trunk. It does not require re-planting as it propagates itself through suckers. It is being harvested from the wild in Indonesia and Malaysia and exported as starch. It also grows in the wild in the Philippines and is not considered a crop.

The Agusan Manobos, like other tribes in Southeast Asia, utilize it as their staple food. Prized among ASEAN countries for its environment-saving properties, it greens large areas such as peat swamps and flooded areas where other trees cannot grow without pesticides and fertilizers. It also withstands forest fires. Despite its potential as a high-yielding crop, sago is known to only 10 percent of the Philippine population.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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