Dole and PHHI team up to investigate disease threatening bananas

There’s a problem in the world of bananas. The fungal disease black sigatoka is infecting banana leaves, reducing yield by up to 50 percent. The disease is devastating Cavendish bananas, the variety that makes up half of all bananas grown and sold worldwide.

“Black sigatoka as well as other diseases are sweeping through the banana industry,” said Nick Gillitt, PhD, Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI) director and Dole Food Company vice president of nutrition research. “We are working diligently to find a solution, and precision breeding could offer a quicker solution than conventional methods.”

To develop a precision breeding program, Gillitt established a collaborative project with Massimo Iorizzo, PhD, assistant professor at the NC State Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI).

Iorizzo, Gillitt, and Dole counterparts in Costa Rica, where Dole has extensive banana plantations, turned to the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP), employing a PhD student and three undergraduate interns. By investing in P2EP, Gillitt is actually harnessing the scientific capabilities of the NC Research Campus (NCRC), where the PHHI and the DNI are located.

Discovering Plant Pathways

P2EP brings together academic and industry partners to study plant pathways, which so far includes blueberry, sweet potato, broccoli, soybean, spinach and oats. P2EP is also developing a plant pathways knowledgebase to mine through big data with the help of bioinformatics.

Dole is a P2EP founding partner along with General Mills and the David H. Murdock Research Institute. The program is co-led by PHHI and UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division (BiSD), both at the NCRC.

“Overall, the idea is to look at genomes of crops of interest to answer this question: what do plants make and how do they make them?” Gillitt explained.

Bryan Munoz joined P2EP as a PhD student in January 2017 to ask those questions about banana, the newest crop in the P2EP portfolio. Munoz, who earned his undergraduate degree at Costa Rica’s Earth University and a Master’s degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is conducting a scan of the Dole banana germplasm for nutritional “metabolites of interest” while investigating the different varieties for resistance and vulnerability to black sigatoka.

Dole’s collection contains 250 different varieties of banana. In the summer of 2017, Munoz and the P2EP interns focused on five varieties. Over the course of the project, Munoz will study all of them.

Iorizzo, principal investigator on the banana project, commented, “the collaborative approach with Dole provides support to advance our understanding of the banana genome that can facilitate development of new banana varieties with improved nutrition and resistance to pests.”

Advantage of Student Researchers

Iorizzo acknowledged that P2EP’s emphasis on collaboration is just part of the program’s priority of training future researchers.

“P2EP represents a unique program to transfer research and professional skills to a new generation of scientists and professionals,” Iorizzo said. “Our PhD students are trained to lead and mentor, training that other PhD programs usually do not offer in such a formal and structured format.”

For the undergraduate interns, Iorizzo continued, they gain a “suite of information that will guide” their careers. In 11 short weeks, he says, they “experience what a research project involves, from experimental design, data analysis, interpretation and presentation to the importance of private-academic partnership.”

“The great advantage of working with undergraduates is that they are unjaded by scientific rhetoric,” Gillitt said. “I think as a scientist, you get further down your career path and start to understand all of the accepted principles, and it hinders you a little bit. These students are enthusiastic scientists who are not going to be put off by barriers and accepted thinking.”

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