Genetically modified plants hold the key to saving the banana industry

February 8, 2011

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) scientists have genetically modified a trial crop of banana plants to survive a soil-borne fungus which has wiped out plantations in the Northern Territory and is threatening crops across the globe.

Professor James Dale, director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities based at QUT, said the destruction of crops in Queensland by Tropical Cyclone Yasi proved just how important it was to have a back up available.

Professor Dale said if genetically modified could overcome the disease, known as Tropical Race Four, it would act as an insurance policy to supply resistant plants in the event that the disease moved into the banana production areas in north Queensland.

He said Tropical Race Four attacked Australia's favourite banana plant, the Cavendish, inside and out.

"It is caused by a fungus in the soil called Fusarium and causes the leaves to wilt and rots the inside of the plant," Professor Dale said.

"The disease has swept through much of Asia and is also found in the Northern Territory.

"From Australia's perspective the biggest concern is that the disease will find its way from the Northern Territory to North Queensland and if that occurs it would severely impact the nation's Cavendish banana industry."

Professor Dale, who leads a team of a dozen researchers, has been awarded $750,000 from the Australian Research Council to plant four acres of genetically modified bananas in diseased soil in the Northern Territory.

"We are planning to take the plants up in April and get them acclimatised to the Darwin weather. We'll be looking at the first planting around June and we'd be hoping to be able to gauge their resistance as early as the first half of next year," he said.

Professor Dale said for banana farmers the disease was devastating.

"The disease is known to harm only and can survive in the soil for decades. The worst thing is it can't be controlled with chemicals."

He said as part of the genetic modification, a gene capable of starving the fungus to death had been inserted into the plant.

"For years it has been thought that the fungus injected toxins into the plant, killing cells and gorging on the waste," he said.

"But we believe that these toxins don't actually kill. Instead they switch on a certain mechanism in the plant and the plant actually kills itself."

Professor Dale said the mechanism was known as "programmed cell death".

"Our thinking is that we can insert a gene that inhibits this process, starves the fungus and tells the plant to not kill itself."

Professor Dale said there was a great fear that Tropical Race Four disease would reach Latin America, making the disease a global threat.

"This project has significance on an international scale," he said.

"If we can prove bananas can be resistant to this disease, we can make a huge contribution to the future of banana production worldwide."

Explore further: The Cavendish banana could be wiped out

Related Stories

Tomato gene may fend banana against formidable fungus

April 13, 2010

( -- Proteins from the fungus Cladosporium fulvum, which causes leaf blight in tomato plants, are very similar to the proteins of the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis, which causes the much-feared black Sigatoka ...

Advance in the battle against 'gray mold'

December 15, 2008

Scientists are reporting identification of the cluster of genes responsible for the toxins produced by "gray mold," a devastating plant disease that kills almost 200 different food and ornamental plants including tomatoes, ...

The power of bananas revealed

January 14, 2008

The thought of powering your house on banana waste may sound a little unrealistic, but, two years ago, UQ researcher, Associate Professor Bill Clarke, proved it was a possibility.

Rot-resistant wheat could save farmers millions

October 28, 2009

( -- CSIRO researchers have identified wheat and barley lines resistant to Crown Rot - a disease that costs Australian wheat and barley farmers $79 million in lost yield every year.

Recommended for you

Researchers develop powerful new method for microbiome analysis

December 11, 2017

Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Sema4, and collaborating institutions New York University and the University of Florida today published a report detailing their new, more accurate method for identifying ...

Yeast can be engineered to create protein pharmaceuticals

December 11, 2017

It took several years, but a research team headed by Professor Jens Nielsen at Chalmers University of Technology has finally succeeded in mapping out the complex metabolism of yeast cells. The breakthrough, recently published ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
Hidden in this work is a discovery of huge potential significance - the discovery that application of a biochemical can turn on gene(s) (programmed cell death) in plants (i.e. the biochemical produced by the fungus). If plants can be genetically engineered to prevent this death switch from being turned on, then could this be used to protect crop plants while causing the death switches in weeds to "switch on" by application of the "switching" biochemical? I'd think this would be a much better alternative than the application of toxic chemical herbicides to kill weeds, or causing the plant itself to produce a toxic chemical which people then have to eat when they consume the food crop.
not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
New research suggests endophytic fungus and bacteria can protect plants from pathogenic fungus. This was done to cocoa. Once the plant is protected with endophytic fungus or bacteria the pathogenic fungus cannot get established. Genetic modification is not the answer and will only lead to much bigger problems down the road. Endopytes can also turn genes on and off and effect gene expression in the host plant.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
newscience - even better if suitable endophytic fungi and/or bacteria can be pressed into service before pathogenic organisms can establish themselves in a plant. We still need a strategy for the cases in which plants are already infected. Some plants have endophytic pathogens (Erwinia in aroids) that are dormant until the plant is stressed, after which they can cause severe damage or death of the plant.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
If these things really can help then why farmerd didnt used it, are they so dum?
Maybe just this doesnt work every time, it may work with cocoa, but may be helpless with the banana, it is diferent plant after all(maybe this can work but you have to GM the endophytic fungi to cooperate with the banana-just exept that there is no natural solution to all of the problems existing), and here we are talking about manipulating the behavior of the plant, it wont produse pesticide or something like that!
There is great difference.
not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
Independent studies have show environmental/human health issues with every gm crop ever invented from potatoes to corn. Will environmental/health studies be done on these Bananas by the biotech industry (or not at all which is the same thing) or will we actually see some good independent research conducted prior to unleashing these crops?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
No way Jose! GM is a cause of all kinds of problems incl making our youth infertile. No matter how absurd that may sound, if you examine facts, everything is pointing to that one as well as many other hidden agenda. See "Georgia Guide Stone" on for example.

Shame they already planted GM bananas.
Remember when Rochefeller, Bill Gates and others built that huge seed vault in Norway, the initial news on ABC said, "to protect the seeds from GM contamination and nuclear war." Those super rich wanting to protect our seed from GM and yet they force us commoners to eat GM - even in our chocolate as soy lecithin and our fish and chips via 'vegetable oil' = canola or soy(GM).

Just search a bit and find out what the authorities and many MSM won't tell us. Talking about sterilization, check "Vaccines: Get the Full Story", too. Oh, also my neighbor whose daughter is in catering businees told me that those politicians in Canberra eat FINE ORGANIC FOOD. WHY?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
GM is about the control over food.
They patented their technology, that's the same with all vaccines patented. That's how they make money as well as making us sick.

GM was created by Monsanto, who made AGENT ORANGE.
Connect the dots, folks!
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2011
Great job man you have busted the conspiracy!
You should totally form a anti-gm group, go and destroy the gm plants in the field, save the Planet, it depends on you, hurry up!
Wolll GM is created from Monsanto do you think so!
Really ignorant person you are!
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2011
To say GM is THE solution for any problem like this is almost crime.
Monocultures un-ecological systems are a main cause and GM for sure will be the next BIG problem.
The problem will probably not occur immediately but it will occur
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2011
Do you know what is a crime, to claim false things, if no one can prove gm is bad and harmfull, and despite that it is banned, this is a crime!
There is no problems and the punkheads try to scary us with the longterm effect-uhhh we dont know.......
Wait for that to happen I wish you good luck!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.