Funding boost for QUT world-class banana research

December 18, 2006

A $5.1 million Queensland University of Technology research project, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that aims to improve the health of East Africans will be stepped up thanks to a massive funding boost.

QUT has been awarded $3.6 million to expand its world-class research into improving the production and nutritional value of bananas - the staple food of the people of Uganda and their East African neighbours.

The latest funding follows a $1.5 million investment by the international philanthropic organisation in 2005, and will focus on controlling the spread of diseased banana planting material from East Africa within three years.

Professor James Dale, from QUT's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said Ugandans were the largest consumers of bananas in the world and ate on average nearly one kilogram per person per day.

"Australians consider bananas as a luxury dessert but in many developing countries in East Africa they are the major staple in their diet," he said.

"As bananas are the main food source for most Ugandans, banana diseases have the potential to threaten the basis of their food supply."

Professor Dale and his 13-strong research team will spend the next three years identifying and diagnosing the different viruses infecting East African Highland Bananas.

The ultimate aim of the project titled Biofortification of Bananas for East Africa: Planning for Success and Public Acceptance, is to micropropagate varieties of bananas that are both high in micronutrient content and disease-free.

"Because bananas are vegetatively propagated, meaning they are grown from another plant rather than seeds, there is the danger that any disease which infects the 'mother' plant then infects the offspring or the progeny," he said.

But Professor Dale said such outcomes could be avoided with careful selection of the mother plant and distribution through micropropagation.

He said by using a process known as virus indexing, it was possible to test both the mother and progeny plants for diseases and then select only the best plants for propagation.

"If we can boost the nutritional value of their staple crop and ensure their banana plants are disease-free, we can make a major difference to the health of the East African population."

QUT scientists have been successfully researching methods to improve the nutrient content of the East African Highland Banana through genetically improved breeding programs for the past 18 months.

Queensland University of Technology

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