The first genetic map of a medicinal herb used in the best malaria treatments is being published to help scientists develop the species into a high-yielding crop and battle the killer mosquito-borne disease.
British plant researchers said the Artemisia annua gene code will enable scientists to select the best-performing young plants by genetics and use them as parent plants for breeding experiments without needing to take the more time-consuming approach of genetic modification (GM).
"The map is already proving to be an essential tool for us. With our new understanding of Artemisia genetics, we can produce improved, non-GM varieties...much faster than would otherwise be possible," said Dianna Bowles of York University's centre for novel agricultural products (CNAP), whose work was published in the Science journal on Thursday.
Artemisinin, derived from the sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua plant, is the best drug available against malaria, especially when used in artemisinin combination therapy (ACT) medicines made by firms such as Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG
Around 40 percent of the world's population is at risk of malaria, a potentially deadly disease transmitted via mosquito bites. It kills more than 1 million people worldwide each year and children account for about 90 percent of the deaths in the worst affected areas of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.
Experts say around 6,500 hectares of land -- most of it in China, Vietnam, Africa and India -- was devoted to sweet wormwood crops in 2009, producing 30 tonnes of artemisinin a year -- enough for around 60 million treatments.
Estimates vary on future needs, but most expect increased funding for malaria treatments to push demand for ACTS to at least 200 million a year in the coming two years.
But low artemisinin yields in the usual growing areas in Africa and Asia have made production expensive and planting areas have shrunk, raising fears of shortages and contributing to a slow roll-out of ACT treatments across the world.
Crop would be commercially viable
Ian Graham, director of the CNAP, said scientists now had the molecular tools to develop the plant rapidly into a high-yielding crop that would be attractive and commercially viable for small-scale farmers in developing countries.
"It's combining modern-day molecular approaches with traditional plant breeding methods," he said in an interview.
"The next step...is to take those plants out to the developing world, to Africa, India and China and trial them and make sure they are robust enough to release to farmers."
The scientists said they hoped to get high-yielding seed to farmers in the next two to three years.
Crop scientists working at Britain's National Institute of Agricultural Botany said late last year they had trebled the yield of sweet wormwood plants and were keen to drug companies about their work. Chinese scientists are also working to try to enhance the crop.
The World Health Organisation said last month that increased funding was starting to pay off in the battle against malaria but greater efforts were needed to halt it.