It’s the world’s most popular fruit, with more than 100 billion eaten every year across the globe. Now, scientists in Norwich are embarking on a project to help banana growers keep their produce fresh for longer and make them more resistant to disease.
Researchers at Tropic Biosciences, based at Norwich Research Park, will use genome editing techniques to create the new characteristics in the Cavendish variety of banana, which accounts for 99% of global exports. The £128,000 project is part-funded with £60,000 from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative.
The benefit to both consumers and growers of extending the banana’s shelf life is clear. Currently growers harvest bananas at only 80% – 85% of their maximum size to make it in time to market. Despite this, losses in transportation still account for 15% – 20% of total shipped volume. Extending the banana’s ‘Green Phase’ (before ripening) would allow a significant increase in harvest sizes and reduce wastage.
If untreated fungal diseases can reduce commercial banana crop yields by over 50%. Currently, growers use chemical fungicides which require 20 – 60 treatments per year and account for 20% – 30% of total production costs. Increase the plants’ natural tolerance would reduce the need for hazardous chemicals and improve the livelihood and health conditions of growers and their families.
Tropic is already undertaking a project to develop new, commercially beneficial traits in coffee. The company will hire 2 additional staff in Norwich for the banana project, and potentially expand its operation by up to four new full-time employees by December 2018.
Dr. Eyal Maori and Gilad Gershon, founders of Tropic Biosciences, said: “We are excited to further collaborate with the Eastern AgriTech team and launch this exciting new project from our labs at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. This generous grant will allow us to recruit additional researchers to join our team and expedite our efforts to bring our products to the market.”
Doug Field, Chairman of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The team at Tropic Biosciences have provided another example of the globally significant research taking place right here in the East. This project could have a profound and positive impact on banana production worldwide and is worthy of support from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative.”
Cllr Claire Bowes, Norfolk County Council’s Agritech Panel member, said: “It is pleasing to see further examples of cutting edge research taking place within the Norwich Research Park. Tropic Biosciences are attempting to tackle two problems which have beset the banana growing community for years, and which have proven exceedingly hard to overcome. This is not going to be an easy win for them. But success would not only guarantee renown to the company, but would hugely benefit the marketplace, our local consumers and, importantly, the third world farming community. So we wish this project well.”
Mark Reeve, Chairman of the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative Board and Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership, said: “Following on from Tropic Biosciences’ successes with the ongoing Coffee project, we were keen to support this second project tackling some of the critical issues facing the commercialism of the banana plant. Tropic Biosciences have proposed an excellent strategy using genome editing techniques, to develop plant traits that will help deal with some of the biggest threats to the market including; waste, delivery hold-ups, and disease. We are pleased to be able to get behind the cutting-edge technology and innovative thinking that will help to eliminate these problems, and also lead to the creation of jobs to this area. We look forward to seeing more of their successes.”
The Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative is run by the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership (LEP) with support from New Anglia LEP, Norfolk County Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, and the local authorities covering this area.
Grants are available to organisations looking to improve productivity and efficiency through investment in specialist equipment, new market and supply chain development and the application of Research and Development.