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Snow White jute: A partial substitute for cotton

  • Published at 01:03 am March 6th, 2019
Snow White jute
The development of Snow White jute fibre is the latest in a series of successful projects undertaken by Bangladeshi jute scientists Dhaka Tribune

The fine white variety of the Golden Fibre is the latest invention of Bangladesh Jute Research Institute

This year’s celebration of National Jute Day could not be timed better,asBangladeshi jute scientists have come up with yet another breakthrough.

The scientists have developed a novel variety of jute – named ‘Snow White’ because of its fine white shade – which they claim would be a good source for yarn and fabric, thereby lessening the country’s dependency on cotton import.

The globally famed team of scientists in Bangladesh, who unravelledthe genome sequence of Tossa jute in 2010 and, in subsequent years, decoded the genome of white (deshi) jute and deadly fungus macrophomina phaseolina, employed these genetic knowledge in developing this variety – touted to be a potential source of the finest quality of fibre yet.     

Though Snow White’s development predates all these genome sequence advancements, the scientists at the Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI) have only recently managed to do the genetic tweaking. As a result, Snow White now withstands the fungal attacks that would have otherwise spoiled a third of the fibre production.  

“For years, we struggled with maintaining the whiteness and fineness of the Snow White fibre, as it was susceptible to macrophomina phaseolina fungus. We tried to make it immune to the fungus through traditional breeding practices, but then it lost the whiteness in the process,” said Md Samiul Haque, one of the scientists at the BJRI. “Thanks to the decoding of the fungus genes, we have been able to come up with this variety that will withstand fungal attack without compromising on the fibre quality.”

Samiul, the chief scientific officer in the “Swapnajatra” jute genome project, told the Dhaka Tribune that Snow White would go for multi-location field trials soon.

“If it shows stability, we will proceed with the necessary regulatory work for its commercial release.”   

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune yesterday, Dr Md Monjurul Alam, the immediate past director general of BJRI, said: “We succeeded freeing Snow White from stem rot [a disease caused by the fungus]. The variety is now at an advanced stage.”

The good news comes within two weeks of the government releasing a high yielding BJRI jute variety – BJRI Tossa 8,also known as Robi 1 – with 20% yield advantage. This variety has also been derived through special triggering of gene’s expression in the fibre plants. 

The back-to-back successes in Bangladesh’s promising jute sector come at a time when the country is all set to observe the National Jute Day today for the third consecutive year. 

Bangladeshi jute researchers are now upbeat at the prospect of Snow White’s commercial release; the breeders told this correspondent that, unlike other jute fibres, the fibres derived from Snow White do not require bleaching, and it has all the potential of being commercially used in threads, fabrics and garments.

"Its [Snow White] fibres can be used alongside cotton at a 30%-70% ratio, and it will greatly reduce our dependency on cotton import,” a jute biotechnologist said.  

Dr Shahidul Islam, who was in the core team that famed scientist Dr Maqsudul Alam had led in decoding the fungus genome, said: “Despite all the potential of the new jute variety, we had to withhold its release to farmers because of fungi-susceptibility.”

In a previous conversation with this correspondent, Shahidul had said the BJRI had even tried to develop a line – at the pre-variety stage – by cross-breeding Snow White with another line so it would no longer remain susceptible to macrophomina phaseolina fungus.

“But that experiment in 2007 did not work; we did get a line that was much more resistant to the fungus, but at the same time it lost many of the expected characteristics of the Snow White variety,” he said. 

In September, 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced in parliament that Dr Maqsudul Alam and his team had decoded the genome of the most deadly fungus, which causes seedling blight, stem rot, root rot and charcoal rot of more than 500 crop and non-crop species, including jute and soy bean.

The gene sequencing of macrophomina phaseolina is particularly helping Bangladeshi scientists develop jute varieties capable of fighting the fungus that causes an annual yield loss of around Tk4,000 crore, damaging 30% of the country's precious natural fibre, experts said.

Jute is the second biggest fibre crop next to cotton. With nine million bales of the fibre production, Bangladesh is the world's second-biggest producer of jute, next to India, and the biggest exporter of the natural fibre.

However, Bangladesh meets up almost its entire yearly cotton requirements – seven to eight million bales – through imports worth $5 billion. Scientists hope that Snow White will provide some import substitution in terms of yarn and fabric requirements.