Mysore: As jatropha, the promising biofuel crop, gathers attention of government and businesses alike, a small biotech company in Mysore has made a significant contribution to the crop science.
Labland Biotech Pvt. Ltd appears to have developed a proprietary process by which tissue culture plantlets of Jatropha curcas can be grown, from laboratory to the field, on a commercial scale.
Taking seed: Tissue culture plantlets of Jatropha curcas developed by Labland Biotech. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint)
The plant biotechnology company was recently chosen by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to multiply the tissue culture clones for field testing.
“It is the only company we are supporting in tissue culture of jatropha as they claim to have established the tissue culture protocol,” said a joint director at of the department, who didn’t want to be named because of internal policy.
Labland emerged ahead of contenders, including Reliance Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd, owned by the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance group, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and The Energy Research Institute.
Most of the jatropha plantations in India today use seed-generated plants, where it’s difficult to maintain the genetic quality of seeds in subsequent generations.
“By using tissue culture technique, it’s possible to mass multiply superior planting material from a source, irrespective of season, climate or volume,” said Geetaa Singh, executive director of Labland.
Scientifically, it’s challenging to produce tissue clones for latex-producing plants such as jatropha, a problem faced in plants such as tea and rubber. Labland is now testing a small batch of tissue clones in controlled environmental conditions, also called “hardening” in scientific terms.
Perfecting this technique in jatropha opens up new avenues for improved varieties as DBT has already identified 1,500 accessions (new members to a plant collection but are not considered varieties yet). DBT has also funded a dedicated jatropha research lab at Labland, which will carry out field trials of tissue culture clones.
“Jatropha is hardly a five-year-old crop; we have to learn and grow with the crop just as the world grew with the palm crop,” said Sudheer Shetty, chairman and managing director of Labland.
Shetty began researching on jatropha in 2002 and now, besides developing tissue culture technique, supplies jatropha seeds both within and outside India. Labland recently spun off its jatropha division as Labland Biodiesel, and expects a turnover of about Rs200 crore from jatropha by 2010.
In a modest beginning, state-owned Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GSFCL) has selected Labland as one of its two service providers for its 1,100ha jatropha plantation being developed in the harsh, saline regions of Kutch.
“Technologically, Labland is quite ahead of others,” said M.C. Sharma, biotech adviser at GSFCL, which intends to develop a model for jatropha plantation in the state.
Aiming to be one-stop-solution provider for jatropha, Labland has signed letters of intent with companies from six countries, including the US, New Zealand and Brazil, to be their technology partners in developing plantations, ranging from 10 million to 100 million ha. “The Malaysian state of Saravak is offering us 5,000ha for developing jatropha plantation,” said Shetty.
Even though jatropha has been planted in about 100,000ha in the country, according to Shetty, researchers are busy identifying better varieties that are pest- and drought-resistant, yield more oil and overall require less care. Towards that, Labland has collected about 400 accessions from different agro climatic zones and is developing a Jatropha curcas germplasm (genetic material) bank under, laboratory conditions.