Oil Palm Gene Mutation Discovery and New Testing Could Change Industry
In a study published in Nature on September 9, a team of scientists explain that although cloned oil palms are genetically identical to their highly-productive parent palm, they often prove to be oil-barren due to genetic mutation in mantled, or abnormal genes.
Research on the problem of drastically reduced yields from cloned oil palms stretches back 20 years, and the findings in the study were the result of ten years of research by the U.S. based biotech company, Orion Genomics and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).
The possibility of ending up with mantled fruit has curtailed the technique developed in the 1980s known as tissue culture clone propagation, because the mantled traits are only apparent when the palm reaches a state of maturity at six years of age. Although quality control developments have been able to counter this to an extent, approximately 2% of the 5.3 billion hectares of planted oil palm acreage still consists of these clones.
“Currently, the use of clones in the field is mainly dominated by bigger planters who have good tissue culture lab facilities and practices. The fear of mantling has hindered smallholders because they may not be in the position to absorb losses from mantled palms,” says the study’s lead author, Meilina Ong-Abdullah, principal research officer at the MPOB’s biotechnology and breeding center.
Orion Genomics currently holds the license for diagnostic methylation tests conducted as a simple leaf-based assay to detect mantled genes, but the procedure needs to be simplified and the costs reduced so that basic molecular labs and smaller growers can also take advantage of the technology.
For the past 20 years, palm oil yields in Malaysia have remained steady around four tons per hectare, but if the planted area of productive clones in Malaysia can be increased by 10%, it would result in a 3% increase in yields, with every 1% increase in yield generating US$237 billion for the palm oil industry.