New genes mean cleaner, greener, better quality crops

Two plant genes have been identified that could lead to new crop varieties resistant to fungal diseases, meaning increased productivity for farmers and improved quality and cheaper costs for consumers.

These two genes can help plants boost their own immunity to disease, resulting in less need for chemical sprays, improved produce quality and increased shelf life for crop products.

Plant diseases are a major problem for growers, especially in northern Australia where fungal disease wipes out millions of dollars of production from grain and forage crops each year.

“Although it may seem quiet on the outside, a molecular war is being waged inside plants under attack from fungal invaders,” said University of Queensland PhD student, Ken McGrath.

Ken was one of 16 students selected to take part in the 2004 Fresh Science Awards held recently in Melbourne, where he presented his research to university students and the general public.

“Plants themselves are not defenceless against disease – inside every cell is an array of defensive weapons that the plant can produce to prevent the intruder from taking over,” Ken said.

As part of his research with the CRC for Tropical Plant Protection, Ken is looking to see how the two genes he has identified can be used to boost a plant’s own natural defences against fungal attacks.

“Knowledge of how both of these genes work allows us to develop plants that are able to defend themselves against a fungal attack more effectively,” he said.

“Plants that have their troops always at their post are potentially resistant to a range of fungal diseases, because they have a head start on the invader.”

This study has developed plants with higher levels of their own natural defences in place, ready to resist fungal disease.

These plants are currently being examined to see if an activated defence system translates into increased resistance against a number of agriculturally important fungal diseases that affect valuable crops like bananas, cotton, wheat and barley.

If successful, this research will result in cheaper and better quality produce that has been treated with fewer chemicals and is more resistant to spoilage.

“By putting the balance of power back with the plants, we can help them win their battle against their fungal foes.”

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