Jatropha Gene Sequence: Will it Help the Industry?

There were once high hopes for Jatropha as a feedstock for biofuels. But as concerns over the environmental impact of the crop grew, those hopes faded into the background.

Jatropha curcas is a non-edible shrub that is native to Central America. Its seeds contain high amounts of oil that can be used for a variety of bio-based materials including feedstock substitutes for the diesel, petrochemical and jet fuel industries. It can be grown on marginal lands that are considered undesirable for food crops; however, companies have found that when grown on marginal lands, they get marginal yields. This has been one big setback for the industry.

The other problem is the amount of water needed for growing Jatropha. The plant requires much more water than any other biofuel crop – including corn and soy – according to a study done in the Netherlands.

Last summer, BP gave up on its joint venture with D1 Oils to experiment with Jatropha in favor of traditional ethanol and cellulosic ethanol from feedstocks like switchgrass and sugarcane bagasse. Other companies like Chevron and Exxon have focused on algae.

But a recent announcement may breath new life into the Jatropha-to-biofuels sector. Life Technologies Corporation and SG Biofuels said that they had sequenced the genome of Jatropha Curcas and identified the key traits that make the crop a good one for biofuels production.

Working in strategic alliance with Life Technologies, SG Biofuels will use the sequence to generate a high quality Jatropha reference genome. The genome will be compared to other sequences to identify molecular markers and eventually help increase yields and profitability and lower water requirements.

The companies are hoping that, when completed, the research will spawn higher performing crops and encourage new activity in the Jatropha space.

Below, Al Jazeera reported in 2008 that Jatropha had not escaped the “food versus fuel” debate in India.

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