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Jatropha curcus, once hailed as a green goldmine for developing countries, is failing to live up to the hype.

Only last year the shrub, whose seeds produce a diesel-like oil, was predicted to attract investments of up to US$1 billion a year.

But now critics are saying that the investment has already overshot research. "Over the past three years, the investment got way ahead of the plant science," says Rob Bailis, an environmental scientist at the US-based Yale University.

One of the biggest advantages of jatropha is that it can survive in extremely dry conditions. But bumper seed yields are not guaranteed. Additionally, it can take more than three years to reach maturity and may require more water than crops such as maize, according to a study from the Netherlands published in June.

Scientists say that jatropha could find its niche on a local scale, planted among other crops or on spare land unsuitable for food crops. They call for a "conservative, realistic approach" from the beginning to ensure success.

In the meantime, more basic research will be conducted on the plant, including high-resolution mapping of where jatropha grows best. Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania are looking promising.

Link to full article in Nature