Scientists on trail of plant breakthrough

Jo FulwoodCountryman

Scientists in Queensland have discovered a previously unknown genetic pathway that will allow a plant to defend itself against common viruses.

The discovery could save growers across the world billions of dollars in lost production and chemical treatments.

The breakthrough is being trialled by Brisbane-based Nexgen Plants.

Trial will initially be conducted in tomato crops, and the technology could be available to plant breeders within 12 months.

While most relevant to fruit and vegetable crops, the science could also be used to reduce the impact of viruses in wheat, canola and other broadacre crops.

The technology is based on the identification of a new class of small plant virus molecules involved in regulating a plant's defence response to a virus attack.

The discovery, by scientists at the University of Queensland, allows selective breeding from germplasm collections and the introduction of virus resistance traits into key crops.

Nexgen interim chief executive Brian Ruddle said the technology was still at the proof of concept stage.

He added it would involve genetically modified and non-GM investigations.

Mr Ruddle said the technology could save the agriculture industry across the globe billions of dollars and could also reduce the impact of introduced viruses into Australia from other countries.

But he said it was still early days.

"It's a unique technology and we are getting a lot of interest from plant breeding companies from around the world," he said.

"It's early stage technology but we've proven it works in the lab, now we have to run controlled trials."

Mr Ruddle said any GM technology outcomes would be more suited to North and South America, rather than the Australian industry.

"GM crops are a way off and it comes back to market drive," he said.

"Work is not going to happen on any particular crop if it doesn't have a market pathway."

"Our focus for Australian crops is on non-GM approaches."

Vegetables WA executive officer Jim Turley said the organisation did not support GM because consumers had made it clear they did not want this manipulation in their fresh food products.

"But if there is a non-GM way to prevent viruses in horticulture crops, our growers would be very interested in that," he said.

Nexgen Plants has received a $2 million investment from Yuuwa Capital, a Perth-based early venture capital firm, and Uniseed, a venture fund operating at the Universities of Melbourne, Queensland and New South Wales.

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