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NEWS

UP SCIENTISTS TRYING TO HELP ABACA INDUSTRY
May 31, 2007
By Jo Florendo B. Lontoc
31-May-2007 BusinessWorld

Scientists of the University of the Philippines have recently been tapped to enhance the productivity and profitability of abaca by making it resistant to diseases.

An ongoing project led by the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA), the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), and the Biotechnology Program Implementation Unit (BPIU) of the Department of Agriculture (DA) makes use of the expertise of abaca experts Dr. Vermando Aquino of the UP Diliman (UPD) National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) and Dr. Evalour Aspuria of the UP Los Baños (UPLB) Department of Horticulture.

Mr. Aquino, the project’s main proponent, said the aim is to genetically engineer an abaca plant that would be resistant to bunchy-top, mosaic, and bract mosaic viruses, and to complete the project by 2011. According to reports, the project started in January after the approval of the budget by Agriculture department.

Mr. Aquino, who has been studying the abaca bunchy-top virus (ABTV) since 1997, said he and Mr. Aspuria are working on isolating genes from the pathogens and inserting them directly into the abaca’s DNA. Once the genes are "expressed" by the abaca, the abaca will likely resist infection by the virus.

Genetic engineering, Mr. Aquino explained, is already being used in the
Philippines to solve the problem of papaya diseases. UPLB’s Institute of Plant Breeding, where Mr. Aquino first worked on papaya transformation and ABTV, has developed transgenic papaya both for virus resistance and delayed ripening traits. Though genetically modified abaca is years behind the field-testing stage, Mr. Aquino is inspired by this development, noting that, at the molecular level, UP is the only institution doing this kind of work for abaca.

Mr. Aquino said he has already successfully isolated and cloned the necessary genes from the virus and expressed them in the
E. coli bacterium. This is a significant step in the long process of genetically modifying abaca to be resistant to the virus.

Abaca is indigenous to the
Philippines and is known worldwide as Manila hemp. Figures from FIDA said the global abaca industry is worth $81 million annually from 1993-2000 and 84% of the world demand for raw fiber is supplied by the Philippines. The crop provides direct and indirect employment to 1.5 million Filipinos, mostly in Bicol, Eastern Visayas, and some parts of Mindanao.

Around 127,000 hectares are planted to abaca, but in 2002, around 8,000 hectares lost the crop to ABTV, which Mr. Aquino said, is the most devastating viral disease of the plant. The virus, transmitted persistently by aphids, causes rosette arrangement of the leaves and stunting. Controlling the disease has relied on eradication of infected plants and killing the aphids.

Abaca continues to be used for cordage, teabags and making paper money. New uses have, however, encouraged the expansion of abaca production. Enzymes derived from abaca have been recently used for cosmetics.

Car manufacturers have been using hemp in vehicle interiors for years, but
DaimlerChrysler, the makers of Mercedes-Benz, recently discovered its use for exterior components.
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