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Clones, Carbon and Climate Change: The Epigenetics of Oil Production
Rob Martienssen, Ph.D.
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.
Rob Martienssen studies epigenetic mechanisms that shape and regulate the genome, and their impact on transposable elements, first discovered by Barbara McClintock at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. These mechanisms underlie clonal propagation of oil palm, with implications for rain forest conservation, and of aquatic plants, including the humble duckweed, that are being engineered in the Martienssen lab for biofuel production and carbon sequestration. The link between epigenetics and RNA interference was named “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science magazine in 2002. Dr. Martienssen joined the faculty at Cold Spring Harbor in 1989. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. He was awarded the McClintock Prize in 2018 and the Darwin Medal in 2020.