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Papaya sex change in the works

The effort could weed out unproductive male and female plants so that farmers could grow only the fruitful hermaphrodites.

November 08, 2009|Jodi S. Cohen

An effort is underway to perform sex changes on papayas. That's right -- the large, yellowish fruit.

Papayas, it turns out, have not just one but three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. The third produces the yummy fruit, but the male and females are mostly useless to farmers.

University of Illinois plant biology professor Ray Ming has secured a $3.1-million grant from the National Science Foundation to change the papayas' sex in an effort to grow only plants that produce hermaphrodite offspring.

Currently, farmers don't know which plants are hermaphrodite until the plants have grown and flowered -- meaning they must spend money growing more plants than they can use.

If successful, the research will allow papaya growers to save on production costs and use less water and fertilizer. The cost savings could be passed to consumers.

Ming is one of those consumers, though he notes that it's hard to get a perfect papaya in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. It certainly doesn't stack up to the fruit he just ate while researching in Hawaii.

"I don't eat it here that often," he said. "It is no comparison to the ones I have in Hawaii. It sometimes does not taste as good. It is wrinkled. It is old because of transportation and storage."

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jcohen@tribune.com

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