Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s discovery of the genetic mechanism that causes mantled oil palms has gained the study a front cover spot in the world-renowned Nature journal, which publishes original and high impact scientific research and information. The article, titled ‘Loss of karma transposon methylation underlies the mantled somaclonal variant of oil palm’, and an accompanying commentary titled ‘The karma of oil palms’, was published in the 7570th issue of Nature (Vol 525), September 2015.
The study centred on the issue of mantled palms, an abnormal condition to describe elite clonal oil palms with low oil yields. (In-vitro cloning is one of the many breeding techniques available to the palm oil industry). Generally, the cloning of elite oil palm is projected to lead to a potential oil yield increase of 20-30%.
However, during such cloning efforts (to produce more of this high-yielding oil palms), it was discovered that there are some variants where its carpels will cover the fruit – and this is where the term ‘mantling’ is used. Clones that are mantled either become low-yielding, or even sterile and unproductive (parthenocarpic). It is estimated that 5% of cloned oil palms are affected by the mantling condition.
As mantling can only be detected 2-3 years after oil palm’s field planting, the palm oil industry has reservations about oil palm cloning (despite its high-yield potential), as a high level of uncertainty is possible, and its economic implications could be severe if the palms bear no fruit upon maturing.
This issue has plagued the palm oil industry for almost 2 decades, where it had great difficulty to identify the genetic cause and mechanism for the mantling, until MPOB’s focus on genome technology enabled the publication and release of the oil palm genome sequence in 2013. With this vital piece of information finally available, the team of Malaysian and US researchers were able to then discover the cause of the oil palm mantling, and to develop a detection process to identify these abnormal conditions and cull the clones before it reaches the planting stages.
The Malaysian palm oil industry anticipates that with this breakthrough, research facilities can now eliminate the mantled palms before the field-planting stage. This would save plantation companies tremendous time and resources, as well as the assurance that its clonal materials meets the desired quality and traits that will bring its projected economic returns.
We are confident that with the demystification of this ‘mantled palm’ barrier, the Malaysian palm oil companies will be able to produce high quality crops with its expected yields to match. With the improved yields, the need for land use expansion can also be reduced (and with less carbon emissions produced too). Finally, this is one prime example where genome technology could be sustainably utilised to improve the crop’s production, without resorting to take the GMO-path which many Western agricultural crops have resorted to.
Author: Michael Ng, Senior Executive, Science & Environment Division