Author Archives: Ulrich Riemann

Interspecific hybrid H1.2

Jatropha interspecific hybrids doing well

Today we take a quick look at one of our oldest Jatropha interspecific hybrids. It’s less than 7 months old and about 1.5 m high. Over the last 3 months it has been flowering almost constantly. Fruit development is becoming more and more robust, so we expect larger quantities of healthy seeds in the near future.

As this type of hybrid represents an intermediate stage in one of our originally charted out breeding paths male and female flowers will be used for further breeding. However, in order to exploit the full genetic variability of such a unique hybrid a next generation direct offspring (F2) will be of great interest.

Only 3 days ago it was transplanted to a large decorative pot and placed at a prominent spot in front of the house because this will be the most memorable plant of the BPL Jatropha breeding program for a long time to come.

BPL H1.2 interspecific hybrid

After intense rainfall once again we see a large number of fruits developing. While we already harvested an early seed we had no germination success yet. Difficulties in fruit development actually seem to be a trait inherited from the pollen donating parent. However, we are more than confident to break that barrier in the near future as we have broken the barrier before on the male parent after some experimenting.

Posted – for the first time – mobile from WordPress for Android on my good old Galaxy Tab

Next milestones on the way forward

A couple of weeks ago we have successfully reached a very important milestone of our breeding program: the first interspecific hybrid was flowering. As of today we are in the middle of a sister hybrid flowering with at least 4 others approaching the same stage. Also, the initial F1 plant is already showing the next 2 inflorescenses which might indicate a very active flowering trait.

So what have we done since the F1 flowering commenced and what are the next steps going to come?

First of all on the very first pollinated hybrid we have 5 fruits developing well. They have all been manually pollinated with various non-toxic pollen donors over 3 weeks ago. In addition, this hybrid provided pollen to a most promising non-tox variety luckily flowering at exactly the right time. So we have 3 BC1 (first generation back cross) fruits developing.

The second hybrid which is in the middle of an extensive multi-week flowering processes right now has opened 13 female flowers so far over the last 5 days. They have all been manually pollinated utilizing 4 different pollen sources. This flower shows a lot more buds that are going to open more female and a lot of male flowers over the coming days. The very delayed process of individual flower openings is extremely helpful (obviously a trait crossed into the JcL from the other Jatropha species used), as it increases the chances of many interesting successful cross pollinations.

For this type of interspecific F1 hybrid we already have over 50 samples deriving from 8 genetically different JcL accessions. This type of crossing will become a standard process step with all new JcL accessions we aquire. Currently we have over 25 proven distinct accessions growing with initial flowering expected between 1 and 10 months out. About 1/3 tested as non- or low-toxic.

Some of the readers might have by now identified the other Jatropha species used in this hybrid. Actually this route of hybridization has been described in scientific reports several times in the recent past. The more we are surprised how little information is publicly available about the characteristics and various crossing options it offers. It seems, that so far nobody explored this hybrid in-depth instead of rushing on to the next generations. Seeing the huge potential I find this a bit astonishing. It seems to be the result of many research projects being tied to limited time and funding. As it takes 18-24 months to get a flowering F1 hybrid and most public research funding today is on a 3 year basis, we can understand, how the project time remaining was running out. Therefore, we might very well be the first breeding program that has the capability of scratching a little deeper into the vast potential variability of that F1 generation. This will of course quickly lead to hundreds or even thousands of plants in the first generation alone and result in millions of plants one or two generations further down the road. So we are already looking for ways to reduce those enormous numbers.

Flowering H1 hybrid

Interspecific Jatropha hybrid flowering

Flowering H1 hybridWe have arrived at and actually already passed one of the most important milestones of our breeding program: our first interspecific  Jatropha hybrid has opened flowers this morning.

While we are still awaiting the outcome of a large number of other breeding results, this hybrid clearly exhibits several of the expected traits: a very short period of time from seeding to flowering (less than 4 months), a very positive female:male flower ratio and a relatively good resistance against the mealy bug.

This plant is a key outcome of our proof-of-concept phase and represents a highly successful intermediate step on the way to our core breeding objective: the creation of a high yielding, non-toxic Jatropha variety exhibiting a high level of horizontal resistance specifically in West African ecosystems.

The three visible female flowers have already been pollinated manually according to the pre planned breeding paths of which the most important one will be back crosses with selected non-toxic and toxic Jatropha accessions with superior traits. According to current experience we expect a next generation of breeding plants within 6 months.


The Bionic Jatropha breeding program in 2012

Since we started our JcL breeding program we focused primarily on elite non-toxic hybrid cultivars. We have completed the main phase of a proof of concept (PoC) meant to significantly reduce the commercial risk involved in a full scale program go ahead.

By the end of 2011 we have succeeded in showing the validity of all three of our principal approaches, one involving traditional intra specific hybridization, one an already well documented inter specific hybridization path and one a completely innovative bottom up inter specific hybridization method.

We have recently decided, to add a 6 months extension to the PoC to gather more useful planning data especially by reaching the third generation of hybrid breeding, but also by further verifying and confirming protocols developed over the last 18 months.

During the PoC we have worked with 5 different toxic JcL accessions from Africa and Asia as well as 4 distinct non-toxic accessions from the center of origin and a number of accessions from 2 related species. All that parental material has been used to establish a stable, mature selection of germplasm ready to be used in larger scale breeding approaches.

We have also expanded our carefully selected population of parental material for further breeding by another 8 unique non-toxic and 15 toxic JcL accessions. Especially useful is a male sterile, high yielding non-toxic accession and a line exhibiting natural polyploidy.

Currently we have approximately 50 intra and interspecific hybrids growing and we expect some of them to set flowers within the next few weeks. With the resulting BC1F1 and F2 generations we will soon enter the core breeding phase.

Over the coming 6 months we will initiate some systematic feed trials with the first generation non-toxic material we have planted at our farm. For this purpose we have established a small poultry test farm comprising of chicken, guinea fowls and turkeys.


Where is the Jatropha industry headed in 2012?

This is the first post after reformatting this blog and transferring it from to our own domain. So welcome back to this renewed effort of bringing more insight about a fascinating plant to a wider audience. Today I will comment on recent industry and put it in the context of the general development of the Jatropha industry in 2012.

A lot of significant changes occurred in the industry over the recent year. I like to look at them from the perspective of an obvious ongoing move from generation 1 to generation 2 in the development of new Jatropha curcas projects around the world. The focus is still restricted on Jatropha as a commercially viable energy crop. While the more recent years already saw the majority of the generation 1 projects radically cut back or disappear all together, in 2011 we saw a few more serious generation 1 protagonists leave the scene. Above all Sun Biofuels Ltd., a UK company active in Mozambique and Tanzania suspended operations in October after a very upbeat report in Businessweek only a few months earlier. And only a few days ago the incumbent self-declared Jatropha heavy weight Mission NewEnergy Limited publicly announced a severe scale back of their Jatropha operations after admitting extremely disappointing harvesting results in 2011. Had they only listened to us 2 years earlier… ;)

Here are the key statements from Mission’s news announcement and my personal comments about them:

“The harvest is significantly lower than company expectations.”

—> How come they woke up all of a sudden? Welcome to reality…

“The company believes that the lower than expected harvest season is a result of historically planting wild seed varieties which have large yield variability in its early years of growth before the trees mature.”

—> Seems like they are among the last in the industry finally realizing what was written in endless reports over and over again the last 2 years.

“The Company expects maturity to be achieved in the seventh year of planting.”

—> They still prefer to dream on. Their current planting material will simply never become a winner how ever long they wait.

“The company expects that both productive acreage and yield estimates will be materially down graded and awaits the completion of the 2012 harvest season in December 2012 to provide further clarity.”

—> No reason to wait any longer. Admit complete failure now, apologize to your investors and restructure your business immediately.

“The company has decided not to undertake further planting of Jatropha until yield from existing acreage is determined.”

—> so what are they going to do instead? Just sit on their hands and wait for their investors’ cash to completely melt away?

Now this incident is like a flash back on the phase out of generation 1 projects, but we also saw some clear indications of generation 2 coming up on the horizon. So what should we look for in the next round? Quite simple: Better, commercial planting material coming from truly professional breeders and used by experienced farming professionals (Yes, there are a few around!). The first rank in plant development capabilities I would give to Joil from Singapore as probably the best funded and staffed breeder worldwide today. While I still believe that as a “boutique breeder” we are better positioned for a generation 3 Jatropha strategy with high yielding, non-toxic hybrid cultivars especially for Africa.

And finally a brief look at the ever increasing flow of scientific reports is encouraging too. There is not only an increase in numbers but seemingly also in quality and amount of knowledge established. On a special page I will start listing some of the most important scientific documents for Jatropha development and provide download links whenever possible.

Jatropha curcas scion freshly grafted on J gossypifolia

Jatropha curcas scion freshly grafted on J gossypifolia

There is not a lot of information out there in the public domain about Jatropha grafting. But as with many plantation grown tree species grafting can potentially play a major role in bringing JcL planting material up to commercial speed. There are several scenarios that could make grafting interesting:

  • Less time to the first harvest of seeds. This feature would be especially interesting in the roll out of newly developed hybrids as well as in intermediary stages of breeding.
  • Stronger, better adapted root stock for a cultivar with otherwise elite traits.
  • Upgrading of an existent plantation or field with a newer, better variety.

Within our JcL 3.0 platform development we are looking into beneficial ways of bringing grafting to Jatropha. We are experimenting with various grafting methods as well as different possible type of root stock and study the long term behavior of grafted plants.

Just recently we did an interesting experiment using a Cassava (Manihot esculenta) plant as root stock and a fresh branch of our best local Jatropha as scion. Very surprisingly, after only 2 weeks we had a positive result:

JcL grafted on Cassava

Experimental graft Jatropha on Cassava

A simple, but very effective veneer graft did the job. In another 4-6 weeks the connection will be complete and the ends can be cut off.

Further experiments need to be conducted for this combination, but it opens an extremely interesting route for JcL improvement work. Cassava has very unique survival properties and is the only crop plant in many semi arid tropical regions that develops well through the dry season. It is planted as cuttings and develops very strong tuber roots within 6-9 months which are the reason for growing this staple food in the first place.

Breeding for resistance

A major reason that motivated us to look into JcL breeding goes back to a devastating pest attack. Starting about 2 years ago the Papaya Mealy Bug arrived. It settled down heavily on all our JcL hedges and also infected tomato and pepper plantings. During the very dry year 2010 we lost almost all our crops to this bug.

Studying the little options available to fight the plague (of course the industry is willing to sell you tons of different pesticide products, but they don’t really work) of course breeding for resistance was an interesting way forward. As we had started looking at breeding for yield and removal of negative toxic effects anyway, it soon became clear what the three primary objectives for our breeding program would be: (1) yield (2) absence of toxicity and (3) resistance.

Breeding for resistance is an extremely controversial subject and past attempts have done a lot of damage to specific crops and ecosystems that play a major role in today’s overzealous use of chemicals in agriculture.

Recently I stumbled over the very enlightening books of Raoul A. Robinson, especially the one called “Return to Resistance”. (All of Mr. Robinson’s books can be downloaded for free from the internet, just google his name) In this book he lays out the problems around vertical (one gene) resistance and makes the case for horizontal resistance, with the latter being a potential remedy for many of the current food shortages.

Horizontal resistance is a multi-gen trait of a plant that is permanent similar to the kind of resistance wild plants obviously have. In commercial corps in can be achieved through continuous cycles of mass selection from self crossing accessions which will inevitably improve resistance more and more until an upper limit is reached. The larger the range of genetic variability in the breeding population, the better.

We have decided, that we will give this approach a similar chance as the “Mendelian” approach where we cross breed intra- and interspecific hybrids looking for the best combination of traits (pedigree breeding). We actually believe, that introducing interspecific hybrids with their greater genetic variance can help improve the start-up population for the mass selection population.

Anyone with some interest in the subject should definitely have a look at Raoul Robinson’s books. You don’t have to be an agronomist or a plant breeder to understand his work. I can only highly recommend it.

How we became Jatropha breeders

When we originally became interested in growing Jatropha in a synergistic mix with food crops (commonly called inter-cropping) we did not have the slightest intention to move into anything like crop research. We simply intended to find us some good planting material, copy agronomic practices from a planter with more experience than us and get started.

Our initial business plans were based on numbers and “facts” available on the internet which gave us profitability results that looked very good. So we acquired some bush land in the Greater Accra region of Ghana and started a test farm. That was roughly 3 years ago…

Like many others we were soon to find out, that the truth about Jatropha as an energy crop of the future was quite different to the original picture we found. Luckily, we had only started a test farm with a concept that relies on JcL at only 30%. Otherwise we would have not survived like so many other ambitious projects started by others.

In 2009 already I gave my first presentation at a Jatropha conference explaining in detail, why the current approach of the emerging industry could only fail. The core elements of this speech still form a major part of our standard plantation presentation which can by found here. It lines out a number of advances needed to make Jatropha the energy crop everyone wants. A major part of this list is about superior planting material which unsurprisingly is not available today as no domestication process had ever occurred.

We spent some time looking for superior cultivars around the world only to realize, that they are actually not available. consequently we began looking at what would be needed to initiate our own breeding program.

We teamed up with Geneticlab, a private Italian company which had been doing intensive genetic research on Jatropha for some time. Thus we were able to establish a modern, genetic marker assisted hybrid breeding program based on prior detailed genetic diversity studies.

We eventually kicked of the program in early 2010. Intensive study of available scientific reports led to a breeding strategy which was highly ambitious to say the least. Non-toxic interspecific hybrids are at the core of the process, which meant moving on terrain nobody had ever passed for Jatropha.

We decided, to initiate a fast track proof-of-concept (POC) to test the most risky breeding hurdles on the planned development path. The POC will end in December 2011, but today, 5 months before reaching that critical milestone, we can be confident, that all intended interspecific hybrid crosses are actually feasible.

During the POC phase we have also built up a strong selection of proven genetically divers accessions which will form the initial parental material for the main program starting from 2012. These include “commercial” accessions from Asia, Africa and Central America together with true wild accessions. 4 of them have been positively tested as non-toxic, 1 as low toxic. In addition we have established 4 Jatropha species other than Jatropha curcas L. which will be used for interspecific crossings to bring distinctively favorable traits into our future main Jatropha lines.