A recent scientific research paper, spearheaded by the Biotechnology Unit of Sri Lanka's Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), and currently submitted for publishing to international scientific journals, has outlined the DNA barcode for one of the country's most famous crops - Cinnamomum zeylanicum aka Ceylon Cinnamon.
At a later stage, this process will allow Ceylon Cinnamon to be authenticated, and identified as such on packaging, via the international Barcode of Life Database (BOLD) which will finally result in it being differentiated from China's Cinnamomum cassia, often also identified as Ceylon Cinnamon.
According to the "Genetic Bar-coding of Cinnamomum zeylanicum" research paper, cassia is "not only inferior in terms of chemical blend [but] it also has a significant amount of the blood-thinning phytochemical coumarin, a toxic." Conventional wisdom also suggests coumarin to be a carcinogen, and markets such as the EU and US have strict standards for imports which contain this chemical. Further, while Ceylon Cinnamon is within the safety limits for coumarin, cassia is often not.
And, with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation indicating that Ceylon Cinnamon makes up 90% of international trade, mostly to the US, EU and Japan, the paper has also pointed to cassia's much lower price, and a previous lack of methodology for differentiating between the two, leading to cassia's "increasing dominance.
Additionally, the paper also noted that Ceylon Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) has also been identified as being genetically distinct from India's Cinnamomum verum which adds further authenticity to this spice being indigenous to Sri Lanka, which the paper stated "supported the vision of branding of Ceylon cinnamon in the international market by upholding scientific and genetic authenticity over other competitors."
Speaking to the Business Times, two of the paper's three authors, Vajira Weerasekara and ITI Biotechnology Unit Head Dr. Siddhika Senaratne, reiterated over and over again that, without scientific authentication of Ceylon Cinnamon, effective branding/packaging could not result. As such, this project, created at the behest of the country's Export Development Board, had ultimately, after four to five months, led to the inclusion of a distinct DNA barcode for Ceylon Cinnamon incorporated into an international gene database such as BOLD.
The paper's authors also noted that gene sequencing, such as the process used to distinguish the unique characteristics of Ceylon Cinnamon, was also becoming a more lucrative part of ITI's business model and that it was allowing them to genetically modify local materials to provide features needed domestically.
One such project talked about was the genetic modification of waste materials, from brewing, for local beer company Lion. These leftovers would be changed into industrial enzymes which the company would normally have to import at a cost of Rs. 27 million This also led to ITI being gifted a Rs. 7 million solid state fermenter by Lion, which resulted in the company, in turn, getting a Rs. 21 million in tax break as per concessions for research and development outlined in the most recent budget. And, does not include potentially large savings which will follow technology transfers from ITI to Lion after the industrial enzymes fermenting process is perfected.
Further noted, ITI biotech projects in the works ranged from genetically modified rice so it can be used in make 100% rice-based bread, creating oil-eating bacterii to limit pollution at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, vaccines, etc. Also stated, the most recent budget has allowed private investors to opt for research and development projects, with them getting up to three times return on their initial outlay in the form of tax breaks. At the same time, government funding for research was also on the rise with it having increased over the last year and also expected to further increase during 2012. This has also resulted in new equipment being acquired by ITI including a Rs. 150 million gene sequencer, which will soon allow the body to offer Ceylon Cinnamon authentication and similar services as pertains to indigenous plants and materials used in areas such as ayurveda, etc.