Bad Karma can ruin palm oil crops | Science News

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Mystery Solved

Bad Karma can ruin palm oil crops

Cloned trees that lack DNA methylation produce poor fruit

12:26pm, September 11, 2015
Oil palm plantation

PALM PRESSER  Otherwise identical cloned oil palms (a plantation shown) can develop a flaw that ruins crops. Scientists have discovered the source of the flaw.

Palm oil producers thought they had licked shortages of edible oil and biofuel in the 1980s, when they learned to make genetically identical copies of high oil-yielding palms. But when the cloned palms matured, some plants made shriveled fruits with very little oil. Exactly how these dry, “mantled” fruits spawned from twins of oil-gushing palms has been a mystery ever since.

Oil-barren plants are a result of Bad Karma, researchers report online September 9 in Nature. That’s not to say shriveled fruit is retribution for past actions. Karma in palm oil plants is a “jumping gene,” or transposon, a selfish bit of DNA that copies and inserts itself in a host’s DNA.  

Palms usually weigh the transposon down by attaching molecules called methyl groups to the transposon’s DNA.

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