African GM banana trial set to combat root-eating worm

February 29 , 2012

A genetically modified (GM) banana trial to prevent the nematode worm from eating the plant's roots will go live in Uganda later this year in a bid to boost fruit yields on the African continent.

Up to 30% of Africa's bananas are affected by the root guzzling worm, which results in weaker trees  uprooting in windy weather and smaller bunches of fruit.

Researchers at Leeds University's Africa College have created a synthetic gene that produces a peptide, which is a small protein that can be inserted into the plant and will prevent the worm from detecting the roots.

They have also developed an enzyme which can be transferred to banana plants via a bacterium which stops the worm from digesting protein from the roots.

Professor Howard Atkinson said the project used GM technology because commercial bananas are sterile and traditional breeding techniques cannot be used for crop improvement.

"There is a good environmental reason why this technology should be successful because growers currently use a lot of nanocides which are environmentally harmful."

He said  he had been in discussions with several large banana producers but the issue about using the technology centered on whether the consumer would accept a GM product.

However, for Africa protecting the continent's main food source of bananas and plantain from the worm is essential.

"Nematode losses are so severe because bananas are grown on the same land which gives the worms the opportunity to build up a high density unlike the crop rotations methods of Europe and the U.S."

The Ugandan field trial is being funded by U.S. Aid although the original research at Leeds University was funded by the U.K. Biotechnology Research Council and Department of International Development.

The genes were transferred into plantains by a team of African scientists lead by Dr Leena Tripathi at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

The field project is scheduled to start in the middle of this year in a contained trial of Highland cooking bananas under the auspices of the National Agricultural Research Laboratories of Uganda.

"If things go well it will be trialed in more than one locality to see if the technology works across different agricultural land."

Atkinson said Ugandans ate more bananas than any other country in the world. It is estimated Africa loses US$125 billion worth of fruits and vegetables annually to nematode worm damage, with estimated yield losses of between 50-70% in sub-Sahara Africa.

Photo: BBSRC

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