Plantain and other varieties of cooking banana provide 30 per cent of the daily calorific intake of Ugandans and many of Africa's other poorest populations. But up to half of the plantain harvest is lost through nematode worms feeding on and damaging their roots.
Professor Howard Atkinson and Dr Peter Urwin from the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences have been awarded £500,000 through the Sustainable Agriculture Research for International Development (SARID) scheme to work with colleagues from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Uganda to find a solution.
The partnership will use the latest biotechnology techniques to develop pest resistance in plantains, which can then be made available to growers throughout Africa. A major part of the 3-year project is ensuring that the new resistant plantains can be produced across Africa - where growing conditions can vary enormously.
Professor Atkinson says: "The impact of this parasite can be overwhelming for families and communities that rely on plantain for their staple diet. Already nearly one third of the sub-Saharan African population is severely undernourished, so poor crop yields or worse - crop failure - can be catastrophic for subsistence farmers."
"If we can make these crops more reliable through resistance to the nematode, not only will it secure dietary intake, but some land will be freed up for nutritious crops like beans - and surplus plantains could be sold at market to give some income to the poorest of communities," he says.
However, like the sweet dessert bananas we are more familiar with, plantains are sterile plants that produce no seeds, limiting the use of conventional plant breeding to build resistance to the pest over successive generations.
Professor Atkinson says: "It makes the job tougher. Plantains are re-planted using offshoots. This means that every plant is a genetically identical clone of the original - and a pest that affects plantains is capable of affecting every single plant."
"There are four or five types of problematic worm that live in the soil and we're looking to find a way to control them in a 'one size fits all' approach. Our Ugandan partners have developed a technology to add genes into plantains and this, combined with our leading knowledge of nematodes, makes us hopeful that we can target this technique to inhibit the unique digestive process of the worms and stop their destruction, without affecting surrounding plants or other animals in the soil."
The £7 million Sustainable Agriculture Research for International Development scheme (SARID) is a joint initiative between the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Twelve projects have been funded under the scheme, which aims to harness the UK's world class bioscience research base to address the challenges of agriculture and food security in developing countries. All of the projects funded through SARID involve unique partnerships between UK scientists and researchers from institutions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
Christine Foyer and Alison Baker, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £71,158
Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000