A biotech breakthrough hopes to save bananas from extinction

bunch of bananas
CC BY 2.0 Hamza Butt

While banana farmers watch their plantations get ravaged by a fungal disease, scientists think they may have found a solution.

Bananas can be found in every store at dirt-cheap prices, but that does not mean they'll be around forever. The common Cavendish variety is afflicted by a serious fungal disease called Panama disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which has wiped out tens of thousands of acres of banana plantations across South Asia and Australia in the past decade. TR4 has spread to Africa and the Middle East, and it's only a matter of time until it hits Latin America, which supplies most of the United States' bananas.

Once TR4 shows up, there's nothing for farmers to do but stand back and watch their plantations die. As described in the Washington Post, "The only recourse is to eradicate all the plants and start over." Even then, it's challenging:

"[TR4] is extremely contagious, and it can lie dormant for decades, tricking farmers into thinking they’ve eliminated the pathogen, only to find plants rotting from the inside."

Before you fall into depression imagining a future devoid of banana muffins, however, there is some hope. A wild banana species called Musa acuminata, originally from Malaysia and Indonesia, has been found "growing happily in plantations devastated by TR4," according to James Dale, a biotechnologist and professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

Dale embarked on a years-long research project to locate TR4-resistant genes in M. acuminata and insert them into Cavendish bananas. His field trials have yielded remarkably good results, with "four of six plant lines cultivated from a single cell showing resistance after researchers grew them and introduced TR4" -- a success rate Dale calls "amazing." Now, over the next three years, Dale and his colleagues will be planting thousands of samples to see if this genetic modification could potentially save the entire banana industry from collapse and keep the Cavendish, with its appealing taste and texture, on the market.

The Cavendish's impending doom should not come as a surprise to anyone. Before the Cavendish banana became popular, people ate the Gros Michel, which nearly went extinct in the 1950s due to another disease strain called TR1. One might think we'd learn our lesson the first time round, but it appears not. As one commenter wrote in the Washington Post:

This is "an object lesson in the danger of mono-culture farming, whatever the ostensible benefits of the specific cultivar. This story should be a reference point for those who snort at efforts to preserve heritage breeds and seeds."

It remains to be seen how well Dale's trials go and whether the technology can be implemented on a global scale. But the commenter has a good point -- that no matter what scientists manage to do in the short-term to stave off banana collapse, the way in which we produce our food is what needs to be assessed. Diversity is important, which is why seeking out lesser known types of bananas to eat whenever possible is a good idea.

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