Fruits of world-first discovery

Posted by pt91 at Oct 03, 2012 09:05 PM |
The University of Leicester is a world leader in research to safeguard bananas – one of the most important crops in the developing world – from an army of deadly viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi.

“Our goal is in sight. We don’t see anything in the way of having a useful tool kit for the banana. I’m very optimistic.”

Not a bad admission from Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison, given that the banana is the fourth most important crop in the developing world and that the University of Leicester is a world leader in research to safeguard it from an army of deadly viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi.

Thanks in part to a chance dawn meeting at an airport with a virologist also searching for clues into banana diseases, Professor Heslop-Harrison’s lab in our Department of Biology was the first in the world to discover a virus integrated into the genome of a banana and expressed under certain conditions.

“It was a new class of disease and it was the first time this had ever been done,” said Professor Heslop-Harrison. “That airport meeting ultimately directed a lot of our research.”

In the West we know the Cavendish banana best, the most commonly consumed of our recommended ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetables, but worldwide there are between one and two thousand varieties.

They are crucial to the health and economies of tropical countries throughout Africa, Asia and South and Central America. In parts of Africa, for instance, the banana is a major starch source, consumed at a rate of 1 kilo per person per day. India is the world’s biggest banana producer.

At Leicester, Professor Heslop-Harrison harnesses the most modern methods of molecular biology to study the genetic diversity within banana varieties. He is now close to discovering an entire DNA sequence for the fruit, offering realistic hopes for both quality and disease control.

Currently approximately 30% of production costs go into chemicals to control diseases like the aptly-named Wilt and Bunchy Top and the fungus Black Sigatoka.

The biggest challenge is posed by another fungal disease, Fusarium, which spreads by means of water courses, air, raindrops, shoes and truck tyres, and (like the Flu virus) has the ability to mutate. “Once Fusarium is in the soil, other than by sterilising the ground you can’t get rid of it,” Professor Heslop-Harrison warned.

The Leicester lab has also been studying environmental stresses caused by changes in weather and population movement, and encouraging simple good practices to halt the spread of disease – including not waving banana leaves like political banners.

Professor Heslop-Harrison’s research group offers a wide range of opportunities for postgraduate students, from fundamental biology and DNA levels through to applications of the findings. Success cuts both ways and through its international
graduates Leicester expertise is spreading around the world with the formation
of mutually beneficial collaborations.

Are they winning the battle? Professor Heslop-Harrison believes so: “There will always be new pests, but we’re raising the knowledge of genes and an understanding of diversity to new levels.

“The basis of our studies will underpin breeding efforts to meet future challenges and that’s very good news.”

Professor Heslop-Harrison works closely with the Global Musa Genomics Consortium (GMGC) and receives regular funding from various international agencies.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Spring 2012/Annual Report Edition 2010/11.

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