Scientists in Uganda will next week start field trials of a banana variety genetically engineered to resist a bacterial disease that has been decimating crops across central Africa.
The new variety is part of a wider effort to improve the East African Highland banana, a fruit so important to Ugandans that its name, matooke, is synonymous with 'food' in one of the local languages. But delays to a law regulating the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) food in the country means it is not clear when the improved banana could be released to farmers.
The bananas have a gene from green pepper to protect against banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW), which costs farmers in Africa's Great Lakes region an estimated half a billion dollars every year. Bananas infected with BXW ripen unevenly and prematurely, and eventually the entire plant wilts and rots. The disease was originally found in Ethiopia, but was discovered in Uganda in 2001 and has rapidly spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi.
The sweet pepper gene produces a protein called HRAP that strengthens the plant's ability to seal off infected cells. The idea was pioneered by scientists at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, where it has been shown to improve the disease resistance of vegetables including as broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes.
Six of the eight GM banana strains developed with the green pepper gene showed 100% resistance to BXW in the lab1.
"This is the first time this gene has been used in Africa, and it is the first time the technology is going to be tested in the field," says Leena Tripathi, a biotechnologist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kampala, and lead investigator of the Ugandan project.
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