Source: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/9/32/679650- By Ronald Kalyango
THE National Agricultural Research Organisation has developed a system of improving banana varieties using genetic engineering.
They have identified some genetically-modified banana lines from a confined field trial at Kawanda that exhibit improved resistance to the black sigatoka disease.

Black sigatoka, which affects the East African highland banana, also known as matooke, is a leaf spot disease caused by a fungus. It causes about 30-50% yield loss.
“The trial is the first testing of GM plants in Uganda,” says Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a Kawanda research scientist.

Last year, they embarked on scientific trials to establish whether genes, which prevent disease organisms from causing problems in rice, can also stop leaf diseases in bananas, specifically black sigatoka.

They inserted an anti-fungal chitinase gene into a model banana system. The transgenic plants are being tested for efficacy against black sigatoka in a confined field at Kawanda.

“If the technology proves promising, the genes will be transformed into several important banana varieties,” said Dr. Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the Kawanda programme leader.

“Nobody at this stage knows whether the trial will be successful or not, but the data we collect regularly indicates that out of the 24 test lines, two are exhibiting some resistance to the disease. More data is still required to confirm this observation,” he said.

Tushemereirwe said data collection from the field would be done till December before they erase and incinerate the plants. He said the trial would assess the extent to which they could extend the number of days it takes banana leaves to dry due to sigatoka.

“The answer we are looking for from the trial is the extent to which we can delay drying of leaves such that enough food is produced to fill the banana fingers,” said Tushemereirwe. He said the leaves would not dry prematurely but the disease has made them to do so. They would remain green to produce enough food for the fingers to store.

Tushemereirwe said even if scientists achieved positive results, the new banana plants could not be released to farmers since there is no biosafety law to regulate the release and commercial cultivation. The regulations were drafted eight years ago, but they have not yet been approved by Parliament.

Tushemereirwe said the idea of introducing GM banana trial emerged after years of farmers suffering with fighting black sigatoka.

He said the technology transfer project was conceived and funded by the Government, which later invited the United States Agency for International Development’s Agriculture Biotechnology Support Programme II and the Rockefeller Foundations to form a funding consortium.

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The vast majority of the bananas currently grown and consumed were not conventionally bred but are selections made over probably thousands of years from naturally occurring hybrids. Cultivated bananas are very nearly sterile and as a consequence are not propagated from seed but rather through vegetative propagation, primarily suckers as well as more recently micropropagated or tissue cultured bananas. These factors, very old selections, near sterility and vegetative propagation, mean that these bananas have not been genetically improved either for resistance or improved quality and are becoming increasing in affected by serious pests and diseases.

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