FUNGUS could be the key to better looking bananas with scientists looking to use the naturally occurring organism to kill problematic insects.
James Cook University scientists Dr Tobin Northfield and honours student Amy McGuire are undertaking a trial to use a fungus found in soil to combat rust thrips.
Dr Northfield said they were looking to target rust thrips, tiny insects that feed on leaves and developing bananas that leaves a rush-coloured scarring on the fruit.
“The rust thrips don’t affect the eating quality of the banana, but they cause them to be downgraded and sell for less,” Dr Northfield said.
The team are investigating whether the Beauveria bassiana fungus, which is commonly found in soil and known to infect and kill thrips, can be cultured and used as a a biopesticide.
Ms McGuire said they would first conduct surveys to investgate where the fungus was naturally occuring on farms to identify where it could be most effective.
The scientists will then examine farm-collected strains of the fungus in the lab, and evaluate its effectiveness on thrips also collected from the farm.
“In addition to directly testing the effect of fungus on thrips, we’ll run molecular analyses to get an estimate of fungus prevalence in the soil,” Ms McGuire said.
“We will also estimate the densities of thrips and their natural enemies on the plants to see if they correspond to natural fungus levels.”
Dr Northfield said there were many advantages of using natural predators against thrips rather than chemical sprays.
“Using natural biological control instead of chemical pesticides reduces environmental impacts by conserving beneficial organisms,” Dr Northfield said.
“If we can maintain the fungus on the farm it may be more economically sustainable and reduce management costs.”
The project is being partially funded by well-known Innisfail region growers Frank and Dianne Sciacca of Pacific Coast Eco Bananas, the innovators of the red wax-tipped ‘ecoganic’ banana. An AusIndustry grant is matching the funding.
The Sciacca’s patented Ecoganic farming system doesn’t use insecticides, miticides and nematicides on the soil, and significantly reduces herbicides and fungicides to a level that the ecosystem is functional and is able to increase its production of organic carbon.
Mr Sciacca said they initiated the project because of the need to find environmentally friendly solutions to pest problems.
“It is so exciting to find a natural solution to an industry problem, that can drive costs down and increase our competitiveness within the marketplace,” Mr Sciacca said.
“Healthy farms and healthy waterways are vital for the survival of the Great Barrier Reef which is currently under threat.
“Ecoganic is about the continual innovation of non-chemical solutions to solve imbalances created by conventional farming.”
The trial is expected to conclude early next year.