Ethiopia, IITA partner up to save ancient false banana

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Addis Ababa, 18 December 2013 (WIC) - The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) 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.
Enset, Ensete ventricosum, is a staple food source for over 15 million people in Ethiopia, the only country in the world where it has been domesticated for over 10,000 years. It is cultivated mostly by smallholder farmers for food, animal feed, and fiber. Its production, similar to banana in east and central Africa, has been devastated by the deadly bacterial wilt disease which attacks all the varieties of the crop and is found in all the enset-growing areas of the country.
The destructive disease, first detected in Ethiopia in 1968, is caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. Musacearum (Xcm) and leads to complete wilting of the crop.
It is also currently threatening to wipe out banana in east and central Africa covering Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi where it causes annual losses of over US$500 million per annum. Scientists have failed to find any genes of resistance to the bacterial wilt disease in banana and enset and their wild relatives after over 30 years of research.
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 project has received US$2.59 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While officially launching the project the Deputy Director of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) Dr Adugna Wakjira said enset wasan important indigenous crop in the country enjoyed by nearly all Ethiopians as there were many and diverse food products made from it. He further noted it was drought tolerant and was one of the promising crops to support smallholder farmers cope with climate change. However, its production was under threat from the banana bacterial wilt.

"Currently all control measures are sanitary. This project is therefore very timely and relevant to the country as we have to use modern tools in addition to our traditional conventional breeding to solve this problem," he said.
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 project will work 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," says 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.
The project was initiated following a report on "Assessment of Biotechnology and Biosafety Capacity in Ethiopia" conducted by a team from the Africa Union/New Partnership for Africa Development (AU/NEPAD); the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), Burkina Faso; Michigan State University (MSU), USA; and the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), Ethiopia.
After the assessment, ATA requested the Gates Foundation to support a collaborative initiative between EIAR and IITA to build the capacity of national scientists and research facilities to conduct transgenic research and to support policy makers to effectively create an improved policy environment to facilitate the research in the country.

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