Gene therapy: Professor James Dale with genetically modified Cavendish bananas, which could hold the key to saving the Far North’s banana industry from Panama disease. Picture: QUT/Erika Fish
THE CAIRNS POST
MARCH 23, 2015 11:51AM
THE development of the world’s only “super bananas”, which could save the Far North’s $570 million industry from Panama disease, has been stalled by the Northern Territory Government.
Queensland scientists trialling genetically modified (GM) Cavendish bananas near Darwin have been served with an eviction notice as the Top End focuses on eradicating a different, less threatening fungus called “banana freckle”.
The decision delays their globally significant research on Panama disease Tropical Race 4 and could mean Far Northern banana growers will be waiting longer for a resistant variety to become commercially available.
Heidi Quagliata, the daughter of the Dingo Pocket banana farmer affected by TR4, wants authorities to prioritise the disease that has crippled her family’s business.
The Robsons’ 160ha property was quarantined this month after testing positive for TR4 in the first Australian case outside the NT.
Samples taken from other banana farms were yesterday cleared of the disease, while further testing has confirmed the strain of TR4 at the infected property to be the most common one.
“I don’t know much about banana freckle but they should both be on a high priority list,” Mrs Quagliata said.
“TR4 seems to be the one that stays around longer, so resources should be more focused on that.”
Banana freckle affects the leaves and fruit of banana plants, causing blemishes on the fruit reducing their value.
Eradication: Banana Freckle Response inspector and team leader Maurice Thompson (left) and team member Ronald Bond carry away one of the last banana trees in the Northern Territory Botanical Garden area. Picture: Ivan Rachman
A national biosecurity response is under way to eradicate the disease from the NT and Australia after a new strain that infects a wide range of varieties, including Cavendish, was found in 2013.
This involves destroying all banana plants, including the “super bananas” being trialled, from six heavily infected sites by next month.
“As far as I know, we’re the only group in the world that are developing GM bananas that could have resistance to TR4,” said Professor James Dale, director of the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities.
“We completely understand the biosecurity plan to eradicate all bananas, if they can eradicate freckle that would be terrific.
“Banana freckle won’t wipe out the industry, whereas TR4 already has in the NT, but it really is a good idea to eradicate it, it’s just unfortunate timing with our field trial.”
Prof Dale and his team have transferred genes from a wild banana found in Indonesia and Malaysia to create the GM banana.
He said it could be released commercially in 6-8 years if trials were successful.
“We’re very pleased with the results so far and we’re going to do a final assessment at the end of April,” he said.
“We’ll probably have at least 12 months out of the ground and then hopefully, if freckle is eradicated, we’ll be able to go back and recommence field trials in the NT.”
Prof Dale ruled out moving trials to Tully Valley.
Australian Banana Growers’ Council chief executive officer Jim Pekin said the NT Government was acting on the “unanimous advice of all jurisdictions” in destroying the GM banana plants.
“The ABGC supports the Banana Freckle response plan and is aware that this will unfortunately delay research trials in the NT eradication zones,” he said.
Originally published as NT dashes ‘super banana’ trials
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