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Interspecific BC1 Jatropha hybrid

The Bionic Jatropha Breeding Platform in 2013

We have already passed the first half of February of this year, so this article is overdue, if we want to make this kind of posting a tradition. See last years version here: The Bionic Jatropha Breeding Program in 2012.

First of all let’s summarize some 2012 highlights one last time:

Interspecific BC1 Jatropha hybrid

Interspecific BC1 Jatropha hybrid

In December we have reached the BC2 stage following our interspecific breeding path. The first batch of BC2s are all descendants of an early and white flowering BC1, the female parent of which is in turn our non-toxic, male-sterile Jatropha plant from the wild in Guatemala. The pollen donor was an interspecific hybrid crossed from an elite toxic JcL cultivar and Jatropha integerrima. Many more genetically diverse BC2 hybrids will follow over the course of this year as our large population of different BC1s gradually start flowering. Some actually have done so by now.

Quite unexpectedly earlier in 2012 we observed enormous heterosis effects (hybrid vigor) in several different intraspecific hybrids we had kind of neglected. Some increasing seed weight compared to their parents by up to 100%. A finding which made us gravely rethink and adjust our breeding processes and objectives. Later we then saw heterosis again in another hybrid with fruit clusters consistently around 50 fruits and seed weight still significantly above the parental average. All three of those hybrids initiated flowering only 6 months after seed germination. These plants actually convinced us that consistent seed yields of 10 kg and more are within reach. We do expect to see a lot more of positive heterosis results as we only started to fully exploit our germplasm collection by crossing our genetically most distant accessions in the late months of 2012.

Two more areas are worth mentioning where we expanded our knowledge of Jatropha development significantly during 2012, possibly taking us to a global leadership position in Jatropha R&D: Grafting and multi species (more than 2) Jatropha hybridization. We have made great progress on both work streams and do expect major break-throughs to be reported by the end of this year.

BC1: 7.10xH1.1

Unusual Jatropha flowers on a hybrid BC1

The walk through of our 2012 results actually already covers most of the outlook for 2013: our interspecific hybrids will most likely reach BC4 stage moving closer to possible commercial exploitation through selection from a widening population and dedicated heterosis breeding will teach us all we need to know to develop a first line of F1 hybrids in 2014 from our germplasm range.

The first 6 weeks of 2013 gave us an extra boost in confidence looking at the great developments we saw in the usually not very eventful core dry season here in Ghana. This is symbolized by the beautiful flowers on the left, another BC1 which set flowers for the first time in January which were manually pollinated and emerged into 4 fast growing fruits by now.

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.