banana-cropsIt’s estimated that up to 50% of crops in the developing world are lost each harvest due to infection and other causes.  We have recently received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new technologies to help combat parasitic nematodes that are believed to be responsible for a 12.3% reduction in agricultural productivity around the world.

The Phase II Grand Challenges Exploration grant will focus specifically on banana and plantain crops, which are currently cultivated in approximately 130 countries around the world.  Damage to these crops, and others, is believed to cost over $100 billion each year.

The technology will utilise so called peptide mimics.  These are versions of the parasites’ own brain chemistry that can confuse the real parasites, thus rendering them impotent.  The approach is currently being tested in trials in Kenya.

Banana and plantain are often grown by smallholders and can consist of up to 30% of a farmers’ income.  Despite the popularity of the crops however, they are intensely susceptible to disease that can knock crop yields by up to 50%.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Johnathan Dalzell from Queen’s Institute for Global Food Security said: “This project builds on our previous research where we developed a novel way of interfering with parasitic nematode host-finding behaviour. Through our lab work we have identified a family of peptide mimics, which specifically and potently interfere with their neurobiology, disorientating the parasites so they can’t find the host plant. They then die quickly through lack of food. Importantly, these peptide mimics appear to have no impact on non-target animals. This is a clean, and robust approach to parasite control.

“Our aim is to develop a variety of approaches which harness this new technology in order to protect crops plants from these parasitic worms. We have chosen to focus on banana and plantain as these crops are highly susceptible to a range of pests and diseases, including nematodes, insects, viral and fungal pathogens. Developing a broad-spectrum nematode control strategy represents a significant challenge, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a hotbed for pathogens which can break resistance strategies. This is yet another example of how Queen’s is having a global impact and is using its research findings to improve how our world functions.”