Introduction

Artemisinin, a sesquiterpene lactone endoperoxide produced by the medicinal herb Artemisia annua L. (Asteraceae), has very potent antimalarial properties (Klayman, 1985; White, 1994). Since its isolation from the plant by Chinese scientists in 1972 (Anon., 1979), numerous pharmacological and clinical studies have been carried out with this molecule and some of its derivatives in order to assess their efficacy against malaria (Tang and Eisenbrand, 1992; Hien and White, 1993; Benakis, 1996). As artemisinin is very difficult to synthesize, only its extraction from cultivated plants can assure viable production (Woerdenbag et al., 1990). Thus, during the last few years, several cultivation trials have been carried out with Artemisia annua, especially in India (Singh et al., 1988), the United States (Simon et al., 1990), Madagascar (Raharinaivo, 1993), Tasmania (Laughlin, 1993), Switzerland (Delabays et al., 1994), Vietnam (Woerdenbag et al, 1994) and Brazil (Magalhaes, 1996).

An important step in the domestication of a new species concerns its genetic improvement (Delabays, 1992a). With respect to many characteristics, wild plants usually display a wide genetic variability (Briggs and Walters, 1988). For instance, a variation is often observed on the content of secondary metabolites in the plants, allowing successful genetic improvement on such characteristics (Khanna and Shukla, 1991). With Artemisia annua, the main breeding goal is to enhance its artemisinin content. In order to achieve this, a description of the genetic variability expressed by the species on this trait is necessary. Then, in order to choose the best breeding program, as well as to predict the gain that can be expected, the heritability of the artemisinin content must be estimated (Gallais, 1990).

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