How research on roselle began in UKM

Friday, 21 May 2010 14:44
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When joining UKM from MARDI, Prof Dr  Mohamad Osman wanted to continue work on rice and fruits. However  research on fruits were too long-term in nature thus discouraging many students especially undergraduates to be involved in fruit research. He had thus to look for alternatives and cam upon roselle. 

(At the same time he continues to do rice research projects particularly in using molecular markers to assist rice breeding).

Efforts to commercialise roselle were started by UM and Department of Agriculture. The 1990s saw the rise and fall of roselle cultivation in Terengganu. The failure was not entirely due to the crop but more to do with the business hitch-ups.  Roselle was just introduced into the market; there were lapses in consumer acceptance and marketing, and the vicious cycle naturally followed. 

“Growers were essentially not getting their dues as promised, therefore they decided to abandon ship. Interestingly many agencies did the same. They also saw no future for roselle in the country. I took the opportunity and challenge to 'help' roselle.  In 1999 I started doing agronomic and breeding works in order to increase roselle's productivity. Nobody actually noticed it. 

“Many were curious whether it (study of roselle) was really a waste of time.  Initially, students were reluctant/afraid to do roselle for their thesis projects.  Since not much information was there for the crop.  It was really a new crop. 

“No research funding was available for it since 1999; but since UKM has land and other resources at Kompleks Rumah Tumbuhan, it  was a big help.  In fact, I had one student who completed his PhD on roselle breeding using very scarce resources.  Later, more students were 'forced' to do their thesis projects on roselle, because I thought that was the way we could help roselle in the long run.”

Prof Mohamad in early 2000 was writing a book on mangosteen for  the International Centre for Under-utilised Crops (ICUC) based  in University of Southampton.  He had previously been involved in germplasm collection of mangosteen throughout the country while in MARDI; more than 10,000 samples were collected. 

“At that time I didn't know anything about a wild species of mangosteen called Garcinia cambogia.  We don't have this species found naturally in Malaysia.  But there were a few plants planted in a botanical garden in Sabah.  What is the connection?  We now know that G. cambogia is now widely used as the main source to extract HCA, mostly done in India.

“I was just a plant man, not a food scientist.  So when a student of Prof Aminah Abdullah wanted to do a research proposal for his PhD, we accidentally 'stumbled' on to a paper published in 1948 in Germany that reported 28% recovery of HCA from roselle.  Eureka. Unfortunately, the research proposal did not materialise; he contemplated using roselle tea to study its slimming effects.

“The rest was history.  Yes, we found selections of roselle from the breeding programme which showed  'high' contents of HCA.  It was based on its lactone.  At that time, there was not extraction technology to extract HCA in the form of its salts.  It was indeed a major set back for us.

“Luckily, soon afterwards, Dr. Majeed (a scientist who actually extracted HCA from G. cambogia in India, and later formed companies in the US to market HCA-based products) patented the HCA extraction technology for G. cambogia in the USA.  We were excited, we tried using it but it didn't work easy for roselle, we didn't get the HCA salts for quite some time.

“With this emerging new value in roselle (i.e. high content of HCA), I decided to apply for a Science Fund to do research on HCA in roselle.  Yes, we got the fund, not a single cent was cut from the proposal!

“With the help of two postgraduate Master students, it took us about 2 years before we finally were able to extract a 'good' amount of HCA from roselle.  We actually had to modify the extraction technology in order to be able to use it on roselle.  The two students have alreday submitted their theses.

“Luck' also helped roselle research at UKM.  In 2009, UKM launched the three new roselle varieties.  At the same time, we developed roselle tea.  Later, we became more savvy, and worked on the the spray dry powder.  Intermediate products are ready to be placed on the market, but we new the vechicle for delivery

Dr Mohamad said patent applications are being worked out/applied with the help of CRIM/PIK, and also the registration of the three new varieties under the PVP Act.

He hopes the STU to be formed under UKM-MTDC Symbiosis Programme would be able to assist in commercialising the roselle research findings.
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» New varities of roselle produced in UKM
» Brief biography of Prof. Dr. Mohamad Osman

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