3 March 2014. Source: Horticulture Australia Limited

Biotechnology research being undertaken by Queensland University of Technology through HAL’s transformational R&D program has the potential to help the horticulture industry overcome common pest and disease issues facing vegetatively propagated crops, while helping to shift the public perception of genetically modified foods.

The research will focus on cisgenics and RNAi technologies leading to the development of marker-free genetic transformations systems in vegetatively propagated crops, which essentially means modifying the plant using genes from its own species. This method differs from traditional genetic modification which involves adding outside genetic material -often derived from bacteria – as markers into the plant DNA.

Initially, the target crops will be bananas and potatoes as they are among the top 10 crops in the world; however the platform technologies will have potential to be shared in other crops across the horticulture industry.

“Vegetative propagation, which is the process of producing a new sprout or plant by using a cutting from the parent plant, produces new plants which are essentially clones of the previous generation,” explained Professor James Dale, project leader and Director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at the Queensland University of Technology.

“Being a clone, it’s impossible to make any genetic improvements along the way to help the plant cope with some of the common issues facing the wider industry such as the challenge of maximising nutrient uptake or helping to manage common pests and diseases with minimal pesticides and fungicides.

“This research will allow us to take an accepted variety of banana for example and correct the common problem such as disease while retaining the original variety.”

The researchers are quietly confident that the method will help shift negative public perceptions of genetically modified foods due to the fact that no outside genetic material is being introduced into the plant using the methods proposed.

Research will also be conducted into discovering techniques to provide stability of introduced genes across generations. This will ensure that the genetic improvements made to the original variety are carried on to the next generation.

“This has previously been a challenge due to what’s known as ‘gene silencing’ which is where other genes in the original DNA prevent the new and desired trait from being expressed in later generations,” Professor Dale explained.

Alok Kumar, Breeding and Biotechnology Portfolio Manager at HAL added, “This project aims to build capacity for the horticulture industry to be ready for future challenges. The outcomes of this project can only be realised in a long term, up to 2025, as a number of complex issues are targeted. However the potential to shift the industry as we know it makes it a truly transformational project.”