SINTA PAPAYA IS HER LEGACY

VIOLY VILLEGAS1
DR. VIOLETA VILLEGAS at a gathering under the auspices of the National Academy of Science and Technology in Quezon City.

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Jenalyn Eustaquio of East-West Seed posing with Sinta Papaya growing at the Villar Sipag Farm School in Bacoor, Cavite.

This morning, I got a message from Mazhar from Pakistan with an urgent request. He saw in my blog (zacsarian.com) an item I posted earlier about a Sri Lankan farmer who was very successful with his crop of Sinta, the first hybrid papaya produced in the Philippines.

Mazhar wanted to know if there was a distributor of Sinta seeds in Pakistan. He wanted to order in bulk volume. Wow! I said to myself. The hybrid that a good friend of ours took 14 years to develop has now conquered the world. We got information earlier that the same variety had also become the darling of papaya farmers in India, Brazil, Mexico and other Central American countries, thanks to the East-West Seed which has been distributing the seeds worldwide.

In 1982, a young lady researcher at the Institute of Plant Breeding at UP Los Baños took upon herself to start a research project that would address the papaya ring spot virus (PRSV) that had practically wiped out the papaya plantations in Cavite. The province was then the No.1 producer of papaya for the Manila market.

The youthful researcher, Violeta Villegas, must have realized early on the importance of developing a variety that could resist the virus disease. The ring spot virus is a very unforgiving disease. Once a plant is infected, it can never be cured completely of the disease. The most that could be done is to just treat the papaya as an annual crop. After bearing fruit for one year, it could be phased out after harvesting the fruits that had survived the disease.

How did Violy go about achieving her goal? It was not quick and easy. She had to collect as many papaya cultivars grown by farmers around the country. Then she had to take the long route of purifying each one until the plant variety is more or less stabilized. Then she crossed the different purified cultivars, subsequently observing and selecting the promising crosses. That took time, of course. That is why from 1982, it was only in 1995 that Violy was able to release the first seedlings of Sinta Papaya.

We remember very well that she traveled very early every Saturday morning from Los Baños to Quezon City to attend the Agri-Kapihan, the forum that we organized in 1986. There she presented her masterpiece – the Sinta papaya. The hybrid is unique because all the seedlings would bear fruit. It was unlike the usual experience of farmers that whenever they germinated the seeds from their own trees, there would be male trees that came out and would not bear any fruit.

Well, Violy was also quick to explain why. By crossing the hermaphrodite plant and the female plant, none of their offspring would come out male trees. Oh yes, there are three sexes in papaya – the male, hermaphrodite and the female. Simple, my dear Watson?

Several years after successfully launching her Sinta, Violy was recruited by a multinational company where she served as a senior scientist. She had retired from that employment but she is still very much busy these days. She has returned to the Institute of Plant breeding mentoring young researchers gratis et amore.

Isn’t this lady who goes by the name of Violeta Villegas a most admirable scientist?

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