Frank Takin and his colleagues focused on Fusarium wilt, a fungus that many plants are not resistant to. The Gros Michel banana variety was previously wiped out by Fusarium. It appears that the Cavendish banana variety – which represents 40 percent of global production and is considered a staple food for millions of people – is not immune to the fungus.
Researchers in Amsterdam chose a different approach by not focusing on plant resistance. Instead, they examined the sensitivity of plants. To stick with the metaphor: they looked not at how the plant keeps the fungus away with the help of an arsenal of weapons (resistance), but how the fungus gets into the plant through the door (susceptibility).
No side effects
They discovered a number of genes that make plants susceptible to fungal infection. These formed, as it were, a back door through which the mold could enter. If researchers turn off such a gene, the plants are no longer susceptible to infection. “The great thing about this discovery is that the plant can function well without this gene, so you don’t see any side effects and the plant grows and flowers normally,” explains Frank Takin.
The new method has now been tested on tomatoes and cress. More research must show whether it works the same way in banana plants, but researchers are optimistic and have now applied for a patent for the approach. “We think this is broadly applicable,” Takin says.
Want to know exactly how scientists managed to close the back door to plants? Then listen to the full episode of Kennis & Co:
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