James Dale, Queensland Greats Award recipient
Success is achieving a goal that has impact, especially when we have done the hard yards when the hard yards were hard to get there ...
Distinguished professor is hardly enough of a job title for James Dale. Heading up QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, James is certainly a scientist, but he is also an incredible entrepreneur and humanitarian. Specialising in plant and medical biotechnology research, he has worked on genetic modification for disease resistance and biofortification that helps protect Queensland’s crops, and most recently developed pro-vitamin A-enriched bananas, which has the potential to dramatically reduce disease in developing countries. Because of his significant achievements and contributions to both Queensland and Australia, James was honoured with a Queensland Greats Award on Saturday May 30. The Weekend Edition had the chance to catch up with James this week to discuss super bananas and how biotechnology can change the world.
Take us back to the beginning. What were you like as a child?
I had a great childhood. I grew up in a harbour-side suburb in Sydney. It was completely safe to wander about with local friends exploring the foreshores and fishing from the wharf with a simple hand line. On weekends, we would be out and about all day just returning home for meals and to sleep. There always seemed to be building going on around the area and the building sites were also great places for ‘war’ games. And of course cricket in the backyard at Mum’s. Sport was always a big part of my childhood – sailing on Sydney harbour, cricket, rugby and in the holidays horses and horse riding, which has remained a great passion of mine. I gave up cricket at university but continued rugby until my mid-20s. However, I only stopped riding a couple of years ago when my old horse and I came to a mutual agreement.
Were you always interested in science?
No. I was always the youngest in my class at school by a fair way and not very tall to boot. Academic achievement didn’t cut it as a way to be part of the in crowd. Sport was, as well as being slightly defiant, so that is where I put my efforts. I didn’t put a great deal of effort into schoolwork or study and science was just part of that. I always remember my report cards saying I wasn’t reaching my potential; I was always at a loss as to how they knew about this potential if I hadn’t ever demonstrated any. However, late in high school, two experiences obviously had an impact on my scientific future. A senior medical researcher came to our school and talked with my biology class. I was fascinated. I knew nothing about research at the time but this seemed really interesting. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name. And then in my final year, I had a biology teacher, Dan Massey, who really made the subject come alive for me. How often do you hear of one teacher making all the difference! In contrast, my headmaster suggested I shouldn’t go to university as I would probably fail first year. I didn’t.
What can you tell us about your time as a uni student?
I did my undergraduate degree and my PhD at the University of Sydney. I thought I would do vet primarily because of my interest in horses. However, I did some work experience with a vet and quickly realised that needles, scalpels and blood were not my thing. So, I did the next best thing, agriculture. It turned out to be an excellent choice. First year was very dry – maths, chemistry, physics and biology, very large classes, televised lectures, impersonal pracs. From second year on, it was great. The agriculture faculty was small with maybe 120 students in each year. You knew your fellow students as well as your lecturers. And I suddenly found I was really enjoying the subjects, particularly genetics and microbiology and later entomology and plant pathology. The social life was excellent and all holidays were spent doing prac work in the bush. Really great experiences. Our final year was an honours year that involved research. I was hooked. After that year, I went straight into a PhD and was lucky enough to have one of the great plant virologists, Adrian Gibbs, as my supervisor and mentor.
For many years you have worked on developing super bananas – pro-vitamin A-enriched bananas – a project that is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is one of the most significant bioforitifcation projects in the world today. What can you tell us about the project?
In 2004, the Gates Foundation called for expressions of interest in their Grand Challenges in Global Health, 14 Grand Challenges, which included new vaccines, antibiotics, control of insect vectors and Challenge 9, to generate staple crops with a complete set of bioavailable micronutrients. We at QUT put in an EOI with the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) of Uganda as our partner to genetically modify bananas for enhanced levels of pro-vitamin A and iron. Bananas are the staple crop of Uganda and there are high levels of vitamin A deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia in the country. From the thousands of EOIs, we were amazingly lucky to be one of the final 44 projects funded. My Ugandan partner, Dr Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, Tush, and I agreed at the beginning that this would be two parallel sub-projects, where QUT would develop the technology in Australia and transfer the technology but not the plants to Uganda. The concept was that the bananas to be released in Uganda would be made in Uganda. We have developed a very close collaborative partnership with an incredible level of interaction and cooperation as well as some pretty cool technology. The pro-vitamin A bananas are now in development phase in Uganda and we have a target release date. And also importantly, four Ugandan students have completed their PhDs through QUT with another two close to finishing.
Have you begun human trials yet?
The human nutrition study was scheduled for last year but has been delayed. The study was moved from Brisbane to Iowa State University primarily because of the complexity of the analyses and that the researcher at Iowa State had previously been involved in these types of studies. However, the logistics of transporting GM bananas from north Queensland through Brisbane to Iowa to arrive just at the right stage proved quite a challenge. All is just about in place for the study to commence.
What does this project mean for developing countries?
Nearly every developing country has stubbornly high levels of vitamin A deficiency despite the very successful strategies of food fortification and supplements. More than a million kids under ive die or become permanently blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency. Biofortification, the concept of using staple crops such as rice, cassava and bananas to deliver micronutrients as part of the daily diet, offers huge promise to alleviate the high levels of deficiencies that occur today particularly amongst those children, the poorest of the poor, that miss the benefits of food fortification and supplements. It will be different crops for different regions such as bananas for East Africa and rice for Asia.
You have been involved in biotechnology research for more than 25 years and achieved some incredible feats, including working on the genetic modification for disease resistance and biofortification to help protect Queensland’s crops, as well as benefiting people in developing countries. What new goals have you set for yourself for the coming years?
We have some very busy years ahead. The first big goal is to get our high pro-vitamin A bananas through development phase and deregulation and finally released to farmers in Uganda. When we achieve that, it will be kicking a real goal. We also have a new project in Malawi to control a disease of bananas called bunchy top. It has nearly wiped out Cavendish bananas in Malawi and in other neighbouring countries. Our goal is to demonstrate that we have Cavendish with resistance to bunchy top in a field trial in Malawi. This has implications for the Queensland banana industry as well. And finally, Panama disease tropical race four. It’s a huge threat to the Australian banana industry. My goal is to be part of the solution.
As the director and distinguished professor for QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, your research led to many important findings. What discoveries have you personally found the most interesting?
The most interesting has been genetically modifying bananas and inserting new genes and getting them to work. Technically, it has been hugely demanding and always challenging. We have also developed two other technologies that have been incredibly interesting. The first we called FNC for First Nucleotide Change, which we developed in the early 90s. It was one of the first SNP detection technologies and we used it for cystic fibrosis and hemochromatosis diagnosis. The patent was sold to the DNA chip maker Affymetrix and on sold to Orchid Biosciences in the U.S. Since then it has been used in DNA identity testing. Finally, we have developed a technology known as INPACT for expressing proteins in plants particularly for the large-scale production of ‘medical’ proteins.
If you could convey one key message about biotechnology to the public, what would it be?
GM crops have been grown commercially for nearly 20 years. The production has been dominated by just four crops – soybean, cotton, maize/corn and canola – and a few multinational companies, and has been quite controversial. However, the technology has huge potential to make significant contributions towards sustainability and food security for smallholder subsistence farmers and commercial farmers alike and with very high levels of biosafety. Pest and disease resistance and drought and heat tolerance will become increasingly important for many, if not most, crops and GM can play an important role here. It should be about trusting the science and the regulators and not jumping at shadows.
On May 30 you were honoured with a Queensland Greats Award, acknowledging the significant work you have achieved and the national and international presence and voice for you provide for Queensland and Australia in the context of biotechnology and food security. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? Clearly, the genetic improvement of bananas. Bananas are one of the top ten food crops of the world; the most popular dessert fruit but very importantly a staple food for many millions of people in the wet tropics and sub-tropics. However, virtually all the bananas consumed today are selections from the wild over thousands of years. But the pressures of modern life are weighing heavily on bananas and there is desperate need for improvement. My/our greatest achievement has been to develop a suite of technologies that allows us to add new genes to bananas, usually from other bananas, to improve their nutritional value and their resistance to disease. It’s a platform we can continue to build from.
What is your personal definition of success?
I remember a quote many years ago from an Australian rugby league coach that his team had “done the hard yards when the hard yards were hard”. For me, success is achieving a goal that has impact, especially when we have done the hard yards when the hard yards were hard to get there.
What’s your idea of complete happiness?
After a long week, a balmy summer Friday evening walking with my wife in our garden with a good cold Australian beer. And Christmas lunch with my wife, my children, their partners and our grandchildren.
What inspires you?
People with vision and commitment. I spent an afternoon with Bill and Melinda Gates – that was inspiring.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom to share with our readers?
I do a huge amount of travelling and spend time in some amazing places. I am often asked where I think is the best place to live. Simple. Brisbane.