UH researchers moving ahead to identify the papaya genome

China's Nankai University is the latest partner in attempts to expand papaya export opportunities for Asian markets

University of Hawaiʻi
Posted: Jul 21, 2005

University of Hawaiʻi scientists, working with the Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC), are well under way in their efforts to decipher the genetic code of a disease-resistant papaya. The move is a big step toward opening up consumer markets in Japan and other Asian countries to the fruit — and that, in turn, could significantly improve the economic health of the papaya industry in Hawaiʻi.

The scientific work is a collaborative project of the UH Manoa Center for Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics Research Initiative (CGPBRI), the US Department of Agriculture Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (USDA PBARC) in Hilo, the Hawaiʻi Agriculture Research Center (HARC) and the Hawaiʻi Papaya Industry Association (HPIA). And now UH has enlisted the assistance of Nankai University in China to finish the genome exploration and identification work by spring 2006.

The papaya under investigation is the transgenic "Rainbow" variety developed in the 1990s by a research team led by UH alum Dr. Dennis Gonsalves (then at Cornell University and currently Director of USDA PBARC in Hilo), and researchers at UH and Hilo as a fruit resistant to the papaya ring spot virus (PRSV) that devastated island papaya crops during that decade.

Although the transgenic Rainbow papaya has been consumed in Hawaiʻi, the mainland US and Canada since 1998, Japanese regulators have not yet allowed importation of the genetically modified fruit. Government and industry officials are hopeful that once the regulators are satisfied that the genetic modified papaya is no more harmful to health than the conventional papaya, that may satisfy concerns and allow importation of the Rainbow papaya.

The UH partnership with Nankai University, located in Tianjin (China‘s third largest city) was formalized last month during a visit to Hawaiʻi by Hou Zixin, Nankai‘s president, and his colleagues involved in academic exchange and scientific investigation. Nankai and UH officials signed memoranda of understanding that will involve China expertise in the papaya genome project, as well as other ongoing research of interest to both institutions.

"This is an instance in which science has the potential to make an immediate impact on an important segment of Hawaiʻi‘s agricultural industry," said researcher
Maqsudul Alam, Interim Director of the Genomics Center at UH Manoa. "With the use of the infrastructure created at the UH CGPBRI and the MHPCC to determine the papaya
genome, we were able to identify and describe the genetic insertion into the papaya
genome that made it resistant to the PRSV in a matter of weeks — work that might have taken 8 to 10 months in the past. This is technology transfer in almost real time."

"Our partnership with Nankai University should allow us to move forward quickly to complete this project," Alam added.

State of Hawaiʻi efforts on behalf of the papaya industry have involved the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT). "We strongly support this type of university/industry and international collaboration. This partnership is model for others to follow," said DBEDT director Ted Liu.

Papaya industry officials will be attending international industry meetings in Malaysia in November; UH and partners are organizing a Papaya Genome Conference for the summer of 2006.