Future fuel ‘panacea’ under attack from virus; more research needed

Futurefuel‘panacea’underattack from virus; more research needed

New Delhi: Amutant form of a virus, which typically affects tobacco, tomato and soybean, has begun attacking jatropha plants in Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh, and scientists who first spotted it say it may decrease the oil content of the plant’s seeds.

Jatropha, a non-edible plant that abundantly grows in tropical countries, is an increasingly popular biofuel and is seen by businesses and governments, including India, as a viable source of biodiesel.

The virus, known as a mosaic virus, is typically transmitted by insects and causes the leaf borders of plants to curl up, but in the case of jatropha plants, the leaves were curling up and getting smaller, without insects getting involved.

“ So, while the symptoms are those of mosaic virus attack, it seems to be transmitted by the sap of the plant, which makes us believe it’s something new," said J.P. Tewari, a professor of botany at the Maharani Lal Kunwari College, in Balrampur, who first spotted the symptoms of the disease and reported his findings in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Current Science journal.

Jatropha, which grows pretty much anywhere from fertile alluvial soil to stony rocky fields, usually flowers in the winters and Tewari and his research students published their findings on the basis of their observations in 2005.

“But now we see that even the seeds are getting affected. They are distinctly smaller and it’s very likely that their oil output is lower. We are now testing how much," Tewari added, and said that he would publish his new findings within two-three months.

Mosaic viruses are known to trigger a wide range of infections among plants, and though chemicals are available to counter it, scientists say such viruses have an ability to mutate rather quickly.

“I can’t give an offhand estimate of the economic damage by mosaic viruses, but every season there’s a new mutation that poses a new challenge, “ said P.C. Pant, senior agronomist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi.

Jatropha curcas is one of the few inedible plants with an oil content ranging from 40-60%, which means that 40-60% of the seed and kernel is filled with an oil that can be processed to obtain biodiesel, though how much of it can be actually extracted depends on the technology employed.

But unlike tomato and tobacco, which are major food and cash crops, very little research has gone into studying jatropha.

“Before all this excitement on it being a panacea for our fuel problems, jatropha was just another weed and, at best, was used by tribals for a few medicinal needs," said M.K. Ananthan, scientist at the Indian Grassland and Forest Research Institute, Jhansi.

But today, with businesses such as D1 Oils Plc. and BP Plc., and India’s Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd having invested in pilot jatropha cultivation projects in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and some regions in the North-East, a lot more time and money is being invested to understand jatropha.

Smaller Indian firms such as Nandan Biomatrix Ltd, for instance, have special research wings to study and provide consultancy services on the feasibility and potential of cultivating jatropha. “Not only India, but we are looking at land in Malaysia and Africa to cultivate jatropha," said Jayakumar B., research director at Nandan Biomatrix.

These projects consist of farmers cultivating the jatropha plant in waste lands. Therefore, a virus threat would imply more investments on the farmer’s part in insecticide or medicines to protect the plant. “We don’t have conclusive studies yet, of how rapidly the disease spreads, but along with our experiments we are developing some herbal-based medicines to counter the threat," said Tewari.

Though research on the economics of jatropha is quite limited, the per-barrel cost to produce biofuel using jatropha is about $43 (Rs1,694), about half that of maize and roughly one-third that of rapeseed—two other leading materials for alternative energy.

However, independent experts says there’s nothing to be alarmed about yet, but this finding should, if not anything else, trigger more research. “Jatropha is a hardy plant and is known to be extremely adaptable plant," said S. Srinivasan of the National Research Centre for Weed Science.

“Moreover, viruses and bacterial infections are second nature with plants, too. I am sure a lot more research will be initiated to understand jatropha better."