Research has helped develop a genetic map to speed up breeding of the medicinal herb Artemisia annua and rapidly develop the species into a high-yielding crop. The same has been published by plant scientists.
Scientists at the University of York published the genetic map, which is urgently needed to help meet escalating demand for effective malaria treatments.
Malaria, which is preventable and treatable, is a serious global health problem, estimated to kill almost a million people every year.
The most effective drugs for treating malaria are Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs).
And the increased funding for malaria treatments means the demand for ACTs is expected to go up from last year's figures, to around 200 million treatments, by 2012.
However, meeting this increased demand will be a challenge: artemisinin is extracted from the plant Artemisia annua, but yields are low, making production expensive.
In recent years, Artemisia production has been uneconomic and planting areas have declined, raising fears of shortages.
Plant scientists at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at the University of York used molecular technologies to rapidly improve the Artemisia crop.
In the latest issue of Science, they publish the first genetic map of this species, plotting the location on the plant's genome of genes, traits and markers associated with high performance.
This will enable scientists to recognise young plants as high performers from their genetics. It will also inform the selection of suitable parent plants for breeding experiments.
The map has been validated in glasshouse experiments that found the top-performing plants had elevated frequencies of genetic indicators for high yield.
Professor Dianna Bowles and Professor Ian Graham lead the project.
"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 of Artemisia much faster than would otherwise be possible," Professor Graham, said.
"We intend to get high-yielding seed to farmers in the next 2-3 years in order to supply soaring demand for malaria treatments.
"This is a really tight deadline and we can only do it with the benefit of the new knowledge provided by the map," she explained.
The work demonstrates how modern genetics is shortening the timescales needed to turn a wild plant species into a domesticated crop.
The scientists at York are creating the new varieties for use by many thousands of small-scale growers in the developing world, for whom the Artemisia crop is an important source of income.
The project has just received its second grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant will support final development of the new varieties and their delivery to Artemisia producers in Africa and Asia.