A group of scientists, funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, set out to understand why certain oil palms that had been cloned from prized, high-yielding plants in the 1980s were not producing fruit normally – a phenomenon known as mantling.
Mantling has cost the palm oil industry millions of dollars in lost crops, meaning the finding is significant for industry but also for sustainability.
Jerzy Paszkowski of the University of Cambridge said: “This [finding is] not only of obvious economic importance, but also of relevance to the environment.”
The researchers, led by Robert Martienssen from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US, studied four groups of commercially important, cloned oil palms, and found that an inactive DNA sequence, which they dubbed Karma, was less methylated than in normal palms. This prevented the formation of normal flowers.
A simple and inexpensive epigenetic test will be able to identify bad karma and allow growers to destroy worthless palms at the plantlet stage, saving both time and money for growers, boosting yield and alleviating pressure on land resources.
Previously, growers had to wait until an oil palm reached maturity – which takes around six years – before knowing if a plant would produce fruit or not.
Martienssen said that their work was driven by environmental concerns: "As we devise ways to reliably boost yields, we thereby lessen the economic motivation to spread oil palm holdings into sensitive rainforest areas that are important to preserve."
Normal palm oils are highly productive, producing more vegetable oil per hectare than any other oil-producing crop, meaning they are widely used in the food industry, as well as in cosmetics and for biofuels.
The WWF claims palm oil can be found in around 50% of processed food products, such as margarine, bread, ice-cream and baked products.
Source: Nature Journal
“Loss of Karma transposon methylation underlies the mantled somaclonal variant of oil palm”
First published online 9 September 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature15365
Authors: Robert Martienssen et al.