23 November 2004

A five-year research program aimed at developing high yield sugarcane could help re-establish Australia’s ailing sugar industry on the world market.

Professor Robert Birch, from the faculty of Biological and Chemical Sciences at The University of Queensland, is leading the research program, jointly funded by the University and CSR Sugar.

“While the technology has not yet been proven in the field, preliminary results in the glasshouse are very promising, with some plants accumulating substantially more sugar than conventional varieties,” Professor Birch said.

The research team used molecular biology to study how sugarcane accumulates sucrose, and whether it can produce higher-value materials.

As part of this research, they inserted a sucrose isomerase gene into sugarcane. This gene allowed the plants to convert part of their stored sucrose into isomaltulose, a natural sugar already used in many functional foods.

“In some instances, this had the added benefit of increasing the amount of sucrose stored in the plant,” Professor Birch said.

UQ’s main commercialisation company UniQuest negotiated the CSR Sugar funding to continue this collaborative research and development.

UniQuest Managing Director, David Henderson, said the collaboration between UQ and CSR Sugar recognised the significant commercial potential of the research findings.

“This is an excellent example of industry partnering with the University to ensure that promising research is developed,” Mr Henderson said.

CSR Sugar CEO Ian McMaster believes the enabling technology that may develop from this work has the potential to restore the position of the struggling Australian sugar industry to that of the most productive producer in the world sugar market.

However, with outcomes from the trials not expected for at least five years it is too early to consider commercialising GM Sugar, according to Mr McMaster.

“If this preliminary research is successful, commercial use of the technology will depend upon market research, government regulation and consumer trends,” he said.

“It is early days yet and certainly all CSR Sugar products will remain GM free throughout the trials.”

Mr McMaster said another possibility, dependent on project outcomes, was that the research could tip the scales in favour of a future ethanol fuel industry.

“If oil prices remain high and our research confirms a considerable increase in fermentable sugars, the use of this sugarcane directly for ethanol production could well make a sustainable fuel industry commercially viable,” he said.

Mr McMaster said if the project succeeded and markets for the products were developed, CSR Sugar intended to make the technology commercially available to the Australian sugar industry.

“It is too early yet to be definitive about either the research outcomes or the way they might be commercialised.

"We see the research as part of CSR Sugar’s ongoing commitment to supporting innovation for the Australian sugar industry,” he said.

For more information, contact Julia Renaud, Corporate Development Manager, UniQuest, on (07) 3365 4037, 0438 436 179 (mobile) or email j.renaud@uniquest.com.au