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viernes, 9 de junio 2023
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In Search of Better Cultivation Techniques for Avocados

By: Carlos Olimpo Restrepo S.
Root diseases and other ailments that affect crops of commercial interest can be overcome through particular varieties and their clonal propagation by tissue culture. Professor Aura I. Urrea, of the Biotechnology research group, leads this research.

Planting is carried out in a controlled environment, and the growth of the plants is followed day by day to determine whether the processes will give life to individuals resistant to some diseases. Photo: courtesy Lina María Arbeláez. 

It probably bothers you to cut an avocado open and find that it has more seed than pulp, is full of fibers like hairs, or is not creamy. Besides, it is bitter. These are characteristics of certain native varieties of the Persea americana. This plant originated in this continent and is cultivated in large extensions in tropical regions.

But the native varieties, of which there are many, are not useless. They serve the propagation, use and study of other sorts with more significant commercial potential since they may have a greater natural tolerance to pests and diseases such as root diseases. Universidad de Antioquia and the Biological Research Corporation (CIB) are exploring methods to select and clone avocado plants and improve their potential in the agricultural sector and the market.

Professor Aura Urrea Trujillo, from the Institute of Biology of UdeA's Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, spends much of her time searching for this type of plant and researching other plant species, whether for their commercial or nutritional interest, as in the case of cacao, for the need to conserve them or prevent their extinction, as in the case of big monks, and for their ornamental interest, as in the case of heliconias, among other aspects.

"Avocado is a plant that has awakened much interest in recent years. That represents an opportunity for the growth of the Colombian agricultural sector. But this crop has problems since it lacks good agricultural practices and has specific diseases. Among them, we find root rot and other root diseases," said this researcher, who has a master's degree in biotechnology and a doctorate in agricultural sciences.

 You may be interested in reading: Hass avocado quality improves with in vitro method

Another problem highlighted by the scientist is the country's difficulty in obtaining certification of genetic identity since most nurseries lack the logistical capacity to verify the origin of the seeds they use. "There is very little, almost no genetic traceability of the material that is acquired to grow for commercial purposes," she said. 

The consequence is not only the loss of one or several plants. Sometimes, an area of cultivated land must be discarded as a preventive measure to stop the root disease from spreading and attacking other plants and areas of the crop.

In Search of a Solution

Faced with the above problems -diseases and low genetic traceability- Professor Aura and Lina María Arbeláez, her doctoral student in biotechnology, set out to conduct research along two lines. One is the selection of creole varieties with tolerance to Phytophthora cinnamomi, one of the microorganisms that cause root rot. The other is the cloning of plants, mainly by the plant tissue culture method.

 "The grafting method is very common: One part of the plant is introduced into another. You have a rootstock that goes into the ground and provides the root. The scion, graft or cup of another plant with special characteristics and commercial value is placed on the rootstock. For this reason, the group is looking for a rootstock with these characteristics to counteract root diseases," the professor explained.

Rootstocks in the country are very scarce, although there are some avocado companies that, sometimes, almost by chance, have found plant materials with tolerance to microorganisms that attack the root. They could be used to graft cups of commercial varieties. "Producers have tried to propagate some rootstocks from Eastern Antioquia because they are the only ones that survived from a crop, but this method does not guarantee the same behavior," said Aura Urrea.

Another problem is the genetic incompatibility between the graft and the rootstock because if the conducting vessels of the rootstock and cup do not coincide, they do not stick together. Only a knot is formed, and the plant does not develop. This occurs when the cross is made between two species of the same family or even between varieties of the same species but with genetic differences that make them incompatible.

For this reason, the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences Biotechnology group is working on clonal propagation via plant tissue culture. It consists of taking any part of the plant and placing it in containers with an artificial seeding medium, which can result in a complete and new plant. 

"If we identify a rootstock that is interesting for its characteristics of tolerance to root diseases, it can be propagated in vitro and, in this way, it can contribute to the propagation of this material, which avocado growers in the country are requiring so much," Urrea said.

It is a novel technique in which the first steps are being taken in Colombia, not only for avocados but also for other crops of commercial interest, such as cocoa, to reduce losses in this sector of the national economy. 

 And unlike the traditional grafting method, in this case, the initial procedure must be carried out in specialized laboratories so that in vitro propagation can guarantee the farmer a plant with the same genetics as the selected parent material, which can be used to grow directly or to use as rootstock for other varieties.

Sometimes, almost by chance, some disease-resistant individuals are found in the crops. University experts study them. Photo: courtesy of Lina María Arbeláez.

Expanding Crop  

According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2021, there were 79,832 hectares planted with avocado in Colombia, of which 26,427 are of the Hass variety, the most suitable for export because of its flavor and conservation during storage and packaging processes. The Hass variety sold around 99,000 tons.

The sales generated US$ 206,593,509 for about 4,000 producers, their families and the exporting companies. The Ministry reported that avocado cultivation produces around 16,000 direct jobs and more than 48,000 indirect jobs.

Most are sold to the United States and Europe. In August 2022, this national product began to be delivered in Chile to continue the expansion of this market.

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