QUT research creates Panama disease-resistant bananas

Tuesday, 23 February, 2021

QUT research creates Panama disease-resistant bananas

Australian researchers have developed a line of Cavendish bananas resistant to the Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4).

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Professor James Dale said his team’s discovery has led to a multi-million-dollar partnership with US-based fresh fruit and vegetable producer Fresh Del Monte.

Professor Dale said the funding would enable his team to build on this research by using gene-editing CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology to create a non-genetically modified variety of Cavendish, also resistant to TR4.

Hans Sauter, Fresh Del Monte’s Chief Sustainability Officer, said the company was addressing critical issues facing the banana industry.

“The ability to leverage the capabilities of the team at QUT is very exciting. We see the potential with these revolutionary technologies, and we are looking forward to putting these tools to work to solve real problems facing the world,” Sauter said.

Professor Dale’s research is conducted in Brisbane at QUT’s Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy, with the confined field trials conducted on a La Manna Premier Group (LPG) joint venture banana farm outside Darwin in the Northern Territory.

He said the field trials showed that high expression of the gene RGA2, derived from a wild banana, provides resistance to TR4 disease. While RGA2 is also present in Cavendish, it is not expressed.

“Our main gene editing strategy is to activate the expression of the RGA2 gene in Cavendish creating a gene-edited banana resistant to TR4,” Dale said.

TR4 is a catastrophic disease with outbreaks leading to diminished crops across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In 2019, the disease was found in Colombia in Latin America, the region which accounts for about 85% of the world’s export bananas.

“The disease has also been found in crops in Darwin in the Northern Territory and in Tully in North Queensland, resulting in strict quarantine measures,” Dale said.

“TR4 is caused by a soil-borne fungus that can survive in the soil for more than 40 years. The fungus kills Cavendish and many other types of bananas, and there are no effective chemical treatments. Resistance to the fungus is the best strategy,” he said.

“With bananas being a staple food in many nations around the world, this disease has the potential to become a humanitarian issue.”

He said until the 1950s the most common export banana worldwide was the Gros Michel, a variety that was obliterated by Panama disease race 1.

“Scientists around the world are working to ensure Cavendish doesn’t suffer the same fate.”

The Fresh Del Monte and QUT research collaboration is staged with multiple phases over the next five years, ultimately resulting in novel commercial-resistant banana variety releases. Both see this effort as the first step in leading future innovation in the banana sector.

Image credit: QUT

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