In a dim pink room at the University of Queensland, thousands of small avocado trees are being grown from cuttings and lovingly tended to.
Professor Neena Mitter had never tasted avocado before moving to Australia 19 years ago, but she is now applying stem cell science to smashing a shortage of the fruit.
The Queensland-owned world-first technology is being used to boost the number of avocado trees around the world.
“When I came to Australia from India in 2000 … at that time in India there were only 40 avocado trees in the entire country,” Professor Mitter said.
“For the first six months it was a love-hate relationship, but now it’s the love of my life.
“They are my avocado babies that will grow into avocado trees with the most delicious fruit for your breakfast.”
Fixing a worldwide problem
So when Professor Mitter was told by growers that it was difficult to get enough plants to keep up with demand, she decided to do something about it.
The new stem cell multiplication method reduces the time for new avocado varieties to reach commercial orchards from 10 years to three years or less.
“Our Queensland-owned, trade-secret, tissue-culture system takes a single cutting and can create 500 new plants in eight to 10 months,” she told ABC Radio’s Craig Zonca and Loretta Ryan.
“It’s fascinating compared to the current system that typically takes 12 to 18 months to produce one plant from a cutting.”
What makes the work extraordinary is the ability to produce so many plants in a small space.
“Ten thousand plants can be generated in a 10-square-metre room on a soil-less media,” she said.
“This is a game changer for the avocado industry across the globe.”
Keeping avocados on the table
Queensland is responsible for half of Australia’s high-value avocado crop, worth $460 million a year.
The specialised technology behind the work of Professor Mitter and the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is non-GM and requires less land, water, fertilisers and pesticides.
“The key message is sustainability and we want to create a sustainable production,” she said.
The clear liquid in which the plants are grown is filled with nutrition sugars that allow them to flourish.
The technology involves a secret recipe of light, temperature and other factors to root multiple plants from the shoot tip of an existing plant.
“There is no genetic modification there,” Professor Mitter said.
“We’re trying to remind the plant, ‘hey mate, you need to throw some leaves, grow some roots and grow into a plant’.”
She said her work included genome sequencing of the humble avocado.
“Even brussels sprouts have genome sequencing, but the poor avocado doesn’t. We want to unravel the mystery that avocados hold in their genomes.
“We’re also working on how to conserve the avocado diversity that exists in Australia and across the globe.”
Despites seeing hundreds of trees a day, Professor Mitter said she still ate avocado daily.
“Avocado is part of my everyday diet.
“One day, if we could get avocados that don’t go black when you cut them, that will be the dream.”