Bio-technology created at Queen’s University has the potential to reduce devastating crop losses in the developing world, researchers have claimed.
The breakthrough by Queen’s biological scientists targets the microscopic worms that infect crop plants from the soil – parasites blamed for estimated global agricultural productivity losses of £100bn annually.
The research uses “peptide mimics”, which are versions of the parasites’ own brain chemistry, to confuse the real parasites and ultimately render them impotent.
The project has been awarded a grant of $1m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It will be further developed in Queen’s labs in Belfast before proceeding to glasshouse trials in Kenya.
The researchers will initially focus on banana and plantain, which are cultivated across 130 countries, making them the eighth most produced staple in the world.
The fruits are often grown by smallholders in the developing world and can account for up to 30% of farmers’ income. They are highly susceptible to a variety of the parasitic nematode worms.
Lead researcher on the project, Dr Johnathan Dalzell from Queen’s Institute for Global Food Security said: “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.”