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World-first plant breeding programs delivers elite genetics for Manuka honey and oil production

Words by Michelle Meehan

With health benefits and healing properties backed by science, and a global market expected to be worth $US1.27 billion annually by 2027, Manuka honey is like the liquid gold of the natural world.

So imagine the buzz you’d create if the plant species from which this honey is derived could be bred to come into bud earlier, flower longer and deliver higher antibacterial properties in the end product.

Innovative Western Australian company ManukaLife has spent the past five years developing the elite genetics required to turn this idea into a reality.

Working in partnership with AgriFutures Australia and in conjunction with Kings Park and Botanic Gardens in WA, ManukaLife embarked on the world’s most comprehensive Leptospermum plant breeding program in 2017.

The goal was to enhance the genetics of the native plant species and in doing so cement Australia’s status as a global leader in the production of high-grade Manuka honey and oil.

With the proof of this research and development now in full bloom, ManukaLife is looking to expand on its potential with commercial partners across its plant-to-product supply chain.

Related organisations

Logo for AgriFutures Australia
Industries
Aquaculture Essential oils Fruits Game Grains Honey bees Nuts Other rural industries Pasture, fodder & feed Poultry Pulse grains

AgriFutures Australia

  • Location

    Australia

  • Organisation type

    Research funding body

Logo for ManukaLife Pty Ltd
Industries
Essential oils Forestry Honey bees Other rural industries

ManukaLife Pty Ltd

  • Location

    Globally

  • Organisation type

    Corporate

Key ingredients for developing the Manuka honey and oil industry in Australia

Known for its antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, Manuka honey and oil is explicitly derived from the Leptospermum plant.

Australia is home to more than 80 native species of the plant including the single species also found in New Zealand (Leptospermum scoparium). According to a five-year study, honey from a number of the Australian species produce exceptionally high antibacterial activity, which can be measured through the level of Methylglyoxal (MGO).

Australia is also home to one of the healthiest bee populations in the world, which is free from the pests plaguing colonies internationally such as the Varroa mite.

Together, these provide the perfect storm of conditions for Manuka honey production. But ManukaLife and AgriFutures Australia wanted to raise the stakes higher by identifying and creating an elite line of Leptospermum plants.

Manuka industry at cross-section of Australian innovation, agriculture and bioscience

Using both cross pollination and hybridisation techniques and advanced biotechnology, ManukaLife are producing plants for honey with larger flowers, extended flowering periods and arid-zone tolerance, as well as plants for oil with higher manuka oil yields in the leaf and increases the antimicrobial beta-triketone output from the plant.

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“In 2016, we collected the best genetics from New Zealand, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and then had those cloned and brought back under bio-security into Western Australia,” said ManukaLife Managing Director, Paul Callander.

“The next phase was to start delivering plantations in very large-scale trial areas. In the last five years we’ve planted over a million seedlings of the different varietals in plantations from 10 hectares to 50ha in size.

“For the oil genetics, we use intense plantings of 25,000 seedlings a hectare and we’ve got about 15ha of manuka oil in."

“I don't think anybody in the world has another plant breeding program like we do. We've got 21 varietals of Leptospermum that we’ve been working on during the last five years in terms of clonal crossings and breeding to develop elite genetics. Some of those genetics are now producing six-month flowerings, rather than six weeks, with very high Methylglyoxal content.

“It’s a pretty unique proposition.”

ManukaLife owns 100% of the manuka oil genetics and 80% of the IP of the Manuka honey genetics, while AgriFutures Australia owns the remaining 20% share.

AgriFutures Australia General Manager Business Development, Michael Beer said the partnership between AgriFutures Australia and ManukaLife was designed to further develop the Manuka honey industry in Australia.

“The research program has developed new, unique, high value, high-producing Leptospermum hybrids for the production of medical grade honey and oil,” said Michael.

“It has enhanced the Australian honey and ornamental plant industries’ capacity to better exploit the genetic diversity in the Australian flora and will position Australian industry and researchers as leaders in the international arena for developing elite plants for high value Manuka honey and oil production.

“With global interest from consumers to source science based natural products, manuka derived products are well positioned.”

Antibacterial properties in Manuka honey and oil products provide health benefits

Aside from the large-scale propagation and production of Leptospermum seedlings, ManukaLife develops products for the medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and nutraceutical markets.

Its manuka honey ranges from a low strength (30+ MGO) everyday table sweetener through to a superior antibacterial grade honey with a 900+ MGO content, ideal for the development of medicinal and pharmaceutical products. They produce “wellness”, “dermacare” and “pharmacare” product ranges including an essential oil, wound gel, throat lozenges, creams and washes to treat eczema and acne, and lotions to soothe babies’ skin.

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Their new line of scientifically developed wound gel uses Manuka honey with 800mg/kg MGO as its active ingredient. It is their first product to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and ManukaLife is already discussing national and international distribution opportunities with three significant pharmaceutical companies.

Looking for commercialisation partners to take manuka to the next level across Australia

Paul said the time is right for ManukaLife to link up with external partners to help commercialise the elite Leptospermum genetics and manuka products.

The company is seeking discussion with investors, agricultural funds and large-scale landholders to develop plantations across the country, as well as nurseries interested in producing and distributing elite Leptospermum genetics. Interest is also welcome from cosmetic, pharmaceutical and medical companies to assist with developing new products.

“We’ve got to develop ongoing distribution channels globally, we have to set up significant e-commerce platforms and we have to continue development of value-added products that come from natural sources and are scientifically proven,” said Paul.

“If we can do that then it’s a real positive for the global market.”

Learn more and enquire about this commercial opportunity here.

 

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