How science might save the banana

November 29, 2023

Fusarium, a soil born fungus, poses a significant threat to the agricultural sector, particularly in the cultivation of crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas. Researcher Frank Takken from the University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science, and the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, along with his research team, discovered a ‘backdoor’. This ‘backdoor’ provides a new method to make crops, such as tomatoes and bananas, less susceptible to this soil fungus.

Resistance vs. Susceptibility
Currently, there is little that can be done to save crops once they are infected by Fusarium. Moreover, the invisible spores of this fungus easily spread due to us humans, leading to the rapid infection of more crops. There are two ways a crop can protect itself against fungi like Fusarium. A crop can be resistant, triggering a defense response, or a plant can be non-susceptible, depending on susceptibility genes. However, it turns out that although resistance would be beneficial, it can still be overcome by the soil fungus. Therefore, searching for susceptibility genes proves to be a more effective option.

How to Close the Door?
To identify the susceptibility genes that make a plant sensitive to Fusarium, researchers conducted targeted investigations. They utilized a Fusarium protein called SIX8, which is believed to play a crucial role in opening the backdoor for the fungus. This backdoor is the entry point through which Fusarium infects the crops. Now that the proverbial key, in the form of a Fusarium protein, has been found, the backdoor can be locked. By closing this ‘backdoor,’ Fusarium does not have the opportunity to enter the plant, allowing the plant to continue growing and providing us with delicious bananas.

The effect of innovative research
In this groundbreaking and innovative research, the IXA-UvA team – the Knowledge Transfer Office of the university – played a crucial role. To this Frank Takken said the following: “Together with IXA a strategy was developed to protect our invention on how to breed for Fusarium resistance in crop species.” Thanks to the patent, the research can have an even greater impact. Because now the discovery can be produced and marketed by an external party. For the latter, IXA’s team has established valuable connections with commercial entities that may be interested in applying this finding. However, it is also still an option to place the discovery in a UvA spin-off.

To learn more about this research, listen to the NPO podcast where Takken discusses the discovery.