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This is a typical oil palm plantation. Fruits emerge in clusters, just above the trunk. Using a simple genetic test to weed out 'mantled' plants at the pre-planting phase will save labor and capital, and boost yield, thus lessening land pressure in sensitive rainforest regions. Image: MPOBPalm oil is found in nearly half of all packaged products Americans consume, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. It’s used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and even biofuels.

Malaysia is responsible for 39% of world palm oil production, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. Introduced to the country in the early 1870s, the oil palm tree today accounts for 4.49 million of cultivated hectares, producing 17.73 million metric tons of palm oil, and 2.13 metric tons of palm kernel oil.

But in the 1980s, a new method utilizing clones of the highest-yielding specimens was introduced in hopes of reducing destruction of surrounding rainforests. According to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the method resulted in the spoilage of tens upon tens of thousands of fledgling oil palms.    

Now, researchers from the laboratory believe “bad karma” is to blame.

Cloned in culture dishes and sourced directly from a stem-cell-bearing area of the original plant, the new oil palm trees, ideally, should have performed as the originals. Often, however, the clones grew into barren adults not fit for palm oil production. According to Science Magazine, yields for one effort were expected to increase by 30% per hectare. “But today less than 1% of the area devoted to oil palms uses clones because some of the cloned trees produced fruit that developed abnormally, appearing jagged and forming a thick outer coating,” according to Science Magazine.

Prof. Robert A. Martienssen, a plant geneticist with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, used his expertise in epigenetics to discover what caused clones to display a mutant form, referred to as “mantled.” Epigenetics studies the growth of an organism, and the chemical reactions that activate or deactivate gene expressions.

Martienssen and colleagues discovered a process known as methylation was responsible for mantled plants. “The addition or removal of methyl groups from the DNA double helix within a given gene and areas near it can result in that gene’s expression being enhanced, reduced or event prevented altogether,” according to the laboratory.

In mantled plants, the team discovered a methyl mark was missing in the noncoding gene region important for flower growth and development, according to Science Magazine. “Dense methylation near the karma splice site (termed the good karma epiallele) predicts normal fruit set, whereas hypomethylation (the bad karma epiallele) predicts…marked loss of yield,” the researchers write.

Martienssen suspects palm tissue cloned in culture results in mantled plants because of their separation from the source. The meristem tissue of a plant contains RNAs that assists guidance of methyl marks and other epigenetic signals to appropriate positions on the double helix.   

The team’s developed a simple test capable of identifying “bad karma” in the clone’s plantlet stage. Previously, growers waited to discover whether an oil palm would successfully produce, as it takes six years for the plant to mature.

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