Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Saving Enset–Ethiopia’s ancient false banana from deadly bacterial wilt disease

Enset in a farmer's field in Southern Ethiopia. 40-year-old Langano Mamo extracting
 pulp from enset which is fermented and used to make various traditional dishes.
The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) recently launched a new project to improve enset (commonly known as false banana because of its resemblance to the crop but with inedible fruits) by developing varieties with resistance to the deadly bacterial wilt disease.
     The new project led by IITA seeks to build national scientific capacity―both human and infrastructural―in Ethiopia to conduct biotechnology research on enset to develop varieties that are resistant to the bacterial wilt. It will also help policy makers put in place the necessary Biosafety policies and regulations needed to carry out such research. The four-year US$2.59 million project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project was officially launched by the Deputy Director of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)

 Dr Adugna Wakjira, who noted that while enset was an important indigenous crop in the country enjoyed by nearly all Ethiopians, as there were many, diverse food products made from it, its production was greatly threatened by the banana bacterial wilt. “This project is very timely and relevant to the country as we have to use modern tools in addition to our traditional conventional breeding to solve his problem,” he said. Speaking on behalf of IITA, Victor Manyong noted the bacterial wilt was one of the diseases IITA was addressing as a priority due to the havoc it had caused on banana and enset, which are important staple and income crops for millions of smallholder farmers in Eastern Africa.

 He said IITA was honored to work with the Ethiopian researchers to tackle the problem. He also thanked the Gates Foundation for funding the project. Scientists from IITA and the National Research Organization (NARO), Uganda, have successfully transferred genes from sweet pepper resistant to the disease to some popular banana varieties in the country and they have shown very strong resistance to the disease in the lab, in screen houses, and in confined field trials. The genes plant ferredoxin-like amphipathic protein (Pflp) and hypersensitive response-assisting protein (Hrap) were acquired from Academia Sinica Taiwan through the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF).

The project therefore seeks to work with Ethiopian researchers to transfer this technology to enset. “We have made great strides in banana transformation to develop varieties
resistant to the disease using genes from sweet pepper as there are no known sources of resistance in both banana and enset. We are keen to extend these technologies to enset at the request of the national scientists,” said Leena Tripathi, IITA Plant Biotechnologist who will lead the project.
“We look forward to building the capacity of our national researchers to conduct genetic engineering research and build capacity of policy makers to ensure all necessary policies are in place for such work,” said Belayneh Admassu, National Coordinator for Agricultural Biotechnology Research Program, EIAR and lead for the project on the Ethiopian side.

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