Timely switches

A major breakthrough promises to transform the agricultural sector

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

scientist Peer Schenk, who works at the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Plant Pathology ( crctpp ) in Brisbane, Australia said that his institute has made a breakthrough that could transform the agricultural industry. The development could help feed millions and save children in poor countries by producing crops that are more nourishing, disease resistant and that can survive extreme cold. According to Schenk, the genetic switches or gene promoter was isolated in a banana virus by researchers from crctpp and Katholieke University, Belgium. Genetic switches, which control the actions of genes that have been genetically engineered into plants, already exist.

Schenk said the gene promoter they had isolated was a huge improvement on the others already on the market. "Genetic switches can be used to turn genes on or off and can also be used to vary the amount of protein produced by a gene -- a bit like dimmer switch on the light," said Schenk. "This means you design plants that are resistant to disease, that grow faster with a higher protein content," he said. "If it is inserted with a disease-resistant gene into a plant the genetic switch will turn the gene on when viruses or bacteria attack, and protein will be produced that can fight the disease," he added. The crops will also grow quicker produce higher yields and need less pesticide, said Schenk. Moreover, the breakthrough could also help plant produce a cheap alternative to vaccinating children at risk from life-threatening diseases in developing countries.

In Australia's wheat industry alone, it could mean a profit of millions of dollars a year by reducing losses currently experienced by a yellow spot disease. Schenk said research also showed they could produce vaccines in plants such as banana as an alternative to inoculating babies at risk from life-threatening diseases like diarrhoea in developing countries. "All vaccines are much too expensive for developing countries. This development will reduce the prices. The babies will eat banana with the vaccine in it," said Schenk.

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