New project to map avocado DNA

Australian scientists are embarking on a five-year $13.3 million tree DNA project that will help researchers better understand how avocado trees work.

Delivered through Hort Innovation under the Hort Frontiers strategic partnership initiative, this five-year project will develop a breeders genomic toolkit for tree breeders and researchers to better understand how genes control traits that are valuable to Australian growers – such as tree size, yield, disease resistance, and tree maturity.

The research will be conducted by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) embedded within the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The project aims to build a complete DNA map that will visualise the genetic make-up and variability of the nation’s five leading tree crops, avocado, mango, macadamia, almond and citrus, representing 80% of the total volume of horticultural tree crop production in Australia. Together, these five crops accounted for around 56% of horticultural tree crop revenue in 2017.

Hort Innovation Chief Executive Officer Matt Brand said while currently profitable, the horticultural tree industry faced numerous and significant challenges that stemmed from plant diseases, slow production and climatic changes.

“Plant production is, by definition, a slow and timely process. This project will breakdown the genetic code of our five leading tree crop varieties to assess ways to develop more resilient trees that can withstand the changes expected in the coming years,” Mr Brand said.

QAAFI Director Professor Robert Henry said the long generation time of tree crop production made it difficult for plant breeders and physiologists to proactively or “rapidly” develop new plant varieties in response to pest and disease outbreaks, changing climate and evolving consumer preference.

“In the case of crops like avocado, there has been some work in the past and we have low-quality data on their genomes, but what this project will do is bring that up to a modern standard by applying the very latest technologies to producing high-quality genomics platform,” Professor Henry said.

He said this would underpin understanding the biology of avocado and extending that how avocado could be produced more efficiently and at a better quality.

“Despite its global popularity and cult-like status in some countries, there is currently only a limited amount of information available on the avocado genome.”

The ‘genomic toolkit’ produced will enable tree breeders and researchers to better understand how genes control traits that are valuable to Australian growers, including tree size, yield, disease resistance, and tree maturity.

Professor Roger Hellens, who will lead QUT’s involvement, said while scientists had discovered a lot about humans’ DNA and the DNA of field crops such as wheat and rice, tree crops were still a “bit of a mystery”.

“In addition to creating opportunities for more adaptable, higher-yielding tree crops, this research combined with advances in robotics and digital agriculture, could really pave the way for the orchard of the future,” Professor Hellens said.

Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Richard Colbeck said this genomic project was essential to ensure Australia’s horticulture industry growth remains competitive domestically and internationally.

“This is a landmark investment in research and development that will improve productivity, farmgate profitability and global competitiveness for Australian horticultural industries,” Minister Colbeck said.

“I am excited the Australian Government was able to contribute to Hort Innovation’s research through Commonwealth co-investment in the Hort Frontiers Advanced Production System Fund.

“Australia’s horticultural industry operates in a highly competitive market—domestically and internationally—and has a reputation for high quality and safety standards across all stages of the supply chain—from the farm to consumers.

“Excluding wine grapes, our competitive horticultural industry is Australia’s third largest agricultural industry, behind meats and grains. For it to remain competitive, our growers need cutting-edge research and efficient production technologies.”

This story was written for the 23 November 2018 edition of Guacamole.

 

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Date Published: 23/11/2018