Background: The large-scale clonal propagation of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is being stalled by the occurrence of the mantled somaclonal variation. Indeed, this abnormality which presents a homeotic-like conversion of male floral organs into carpelloid structures, hampers oil production since the supernumerary female organs are either sterile or produce fruits with poor oil yields.
Scope: In the last 15 years, the prevailing point of view on the origin of the mantled floral phenotype has evolved from a random mutation event triggered by in vitro culture to a hormone-dependent dysfunction of gene regulation processes. In this review, we retrace the history of the research on the mantled variation in the light of the parallel advances made in the understanding of plant development regulation in model systems and more specifically in the role of epigenetic mechanisms. An overview of the current state of oil palm genomic and transcriptomic resources, which are key to any comparison with model organisms, is given. We show that, while displaying original characteristics, the mantled phenotype of oil palm is morphologically, and possibly molecularly, related to MADS-box genes mutants described in model plants. We also discuss the occurrence of comparable floral phenotypes in other palm species.
Conclusions: Beyond its primary interest in the search for discriminating markers against an economically crippling phenotype, the study of the mantled abnormality also provides a unique opportunity to investigate the regulation of reproductive development in a perennial tropical palm. On the basis of recent results, we propose that future efforts should concentrate on the epigenetic regulation targeting MADS-box genes and transposable elements of oil palm, since both types of sequences are most likely to be involved in the mantled variant phenotype.