Rob Martienssen, Ph.D, Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY
The African oil palm is the most efficient oil bearing crop, but demand for edible oils and biofuels, combined with sustainability concerns over dwindling rainforest reserves, has led to intense pressure to improve oil palm yield. The fruit abnormality, mantled, is a somaclonal variant arising from tissue culture that drastically reduces yield—and has largely halted efforts to clone elite hybrids for oil production. Using epigenome wide association studies, we found that loss of methylation of a LINE retrotransposon related to rice Karma predicts mantled fruit. Identifying “bad Karma” in cloned plantlets allows growers to cull mantled palms before they reach the field. Since many palms in a given plantation are low-yielding, the broad introduction of high-performing clones promises to reduce the land needed to meet world requirements for palm oil.