World-first genetically modified banana given approval as ‘safety-net’ variety in Panama disease battle

World-first genetically modified banana given approval as ‘safety-net’ variety in Panama disease battle

A genetically-modified (GM) banana is a step closer to commercial reality as Queensland scientists gain regulatory approval to release a GM variety of Cavendish banana for human consumption.

Scientists say the QCAV-4 variety is the world’s first genetically modified banana and will be the first GM fruit approved by the federal government for growing in Australia.

But it is unlikely to end up on your toast or in your smoothie any time soon.

While scientists say they will be safe to eat, the GM variety will be considered a “back-up option” in the fight against Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4), as it is nearly immune to the disease.

Panama TR4 is a fungal disease that starves banana trees of nutrients, eventually killing the plant.

There is currently no treatment or cure and, because the disease lives in soil, infected areas can no longer grow most banana types, including the popular cavendish variety.

“We welcome this decision as it’s a very important step towards building a safety net for the world’s Cavendish bananas from TR4, which has impacted many parts of the world already [including Australia] ,” said Professor James Dale, leader of the banana biotechnology program at the Queensland University of Technology. 

“About 95 per cent of Australia’s bananas are grown in Queensland, and Cavendish banana accounts for 97 per cent of production.”

North Queensland banana farms follow strict procedures to stop the spread of Panama TR4.(ABC Rural: Charlie McKillop)

Most bananas are grown in Queensland’s Far North around the Atherton Tablelands, Innisfail and in the Tully Valley.

Panama TR4 was first recorded in the Tully Valley in 2015 and, while the movement of the disease has been restricted to eight affected properties, recent floods have raised concerns about the potential for further spread.

Are GM bananas safe?

Scientists discovered a gene that is nearly immune to Panama TR4 in a banana called Musa acuminata ssp malaccensis, a wild banana that occurs in a number of parts of south-east Asia, and create a variety of Cavendish that included that gene.

“We have moved a banana gene from one banana to another,” said Professor Dale.

“There’s nothing scary. The gene was already present in Cavendish … it just doesn’t work so we have put in a version that works.”

He said Panama disease TR4 was “fairly well under control” in Australia and biosecurity arrangements were “really limiting it’s spread”.

“However, that may change so this is really our safety net,” Professor Dale said.

“Cavendish bananas are not going to disappear [but] this banana is ready to go though, if TR4 really gets going and starts to really hurt our industry.”

Panama TR4 is caused by a soil-borne fungus.(Supplied: Queensland University of Technology)

What happens next?

Following more than seven years of field trials in the Northern Territory, QCAV-4 bananas will now be tested in Queensland paddocks.

Professor Dale said his team would also turn its attention to developing a gene-edited version of the QCAV-4 that was resistant to other diseases.

“Gene editing provides far less concern, particularly to regulators and to consumers, so that’s the next stage, a gene-edited version,” he said.

“The biggest disease other than TR4 in the world is black sigatoka … a leaf-infecting fungus.

“In Australia, we’re very lucky. We have a milder version of that. But in some countries, particularly in Central America, they spray up to 60 times a year to try to control this fungus.

“So we want to develop not only a TR4 resistant Cavendish by editing, but also sigatoka resistance as well.”

QCAV-4 has been bioengineered with a single gene, RGA2, from a south-east Asian banana.(Supplied: Queensland University of Technology)

Future proofing bananas

Professor Dale said gene editing will help future-proof food like bananas by allowing scientists to create varieties that can handle different threats and conditions.

“We’re going to need these sorts of technologies to cut down on pesticides, but also as we’re getting into a much more challenging climate, we’ve got to be able to generate new cultivars that are able to cope with all these new conditions,” he said.

“Because of the technologies we have available … we can also add, as we have in in one of our projects in Africa, increased nutrient content, particularly nutritional values.

“This will be really important for the fruit industry and the banana industry.”

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