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Bad Karma can ruin palm oil crops.

Palm oil producers thought they had nixed future 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 September 9 in Nature. Shriveled fruit is not 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. Such DNA methylation affects gene activity without changing the gene itself. In dry palms, much of the methylation is missing, Robert Martienssen of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and colleagues discovered. Cloning may remove the methyl groups from the Karma DNA in some sprouts.

The researchers dubbed Karma DNA that is heavily laden with methylation as Good Karma because it coincides with oily fruit; the methylation-impoverished transposons are Bad Karma because they ruin crops. Tests for Good and Bad Karma may help growers identify bad clones early and weed them out.

$61 billion Global palm oil market, 2014

1 percent Approximate fraction of all oil palms planted annually as clones

5 percent Estimated average fraction of cloned palms that produce mantled fruit

SOURCES: GRAND VIEW RESEARCH, PALM OIL MARKET ANALYSIS; A. KUSHAIRI ET AL/INTERNATIONAL SEMINAR ON ADVANCES IN OIL PALM TISSUE CULTURE 2010; R.E. LITZ, ED., BIOTECHNOLOGY OF FRUIT AND NUT CROPS

Caption: A tweak to chemical tags on DNA causes normally plump, oily palm fruit (top) to make shriveled, or mantled, fruit (bottom) with little oil.

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Title Annotation:MYSTERY SOLVED
Author:Saey, Tina Hesman
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 17, 2015
Words:316
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