Artemisinin combination therapies (ACTs) are the recommended treatment for uncomplicated malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Artemisinin is extracted from the plant Artemisia annua.
However, yields so far have been low, making the drug expensive. Planting areas have declined because Artemisia production has been uneconomic. This drop has raised fears of shortages. Plant scientists at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at the University of York are addressing this problem by using molecular technologies to rapidly improve the Artemisia crop.
Development of new high yielding varieties optimized for production in different geographic regions is now a realistic target.
In an article published in Science (327, 328 2010), Ian Graham and colleagues have published the first genetic map of Artemisia annua, 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
This breakthrough is crucial if we want to meet the ever-growing demand for effective malaria treatments. The genetic map now makes it possible to speed breeding of Artemisia and rapidly develop Artemisia into a high-yielding crop. Increased funding for malaria treatments means that ACTs demand is estimated to double from last year's figures to about 200 million treatments by 2012.