Stop the bananapocalypse

By Rebecca Firkser
February 07, 2018
photo by alice young via unsplash

The very real threat of banana extension still looms over the world’s banana crops. A fungus called Panama disease Tropical Race 4, or TR4, has ravaged a huge percentage of plantations around the world that grow the world’s most commonly sold banana, the Cavendish. Researchers in Australia are hoping to combat the problem by growing crops of Cavendish bananas that have been genetically modified with cells from a TR4-resistant banana variety. 

According to the Washington Post, the Cavendish bananas have been modified with genes from a subspecies of the sweet Musa acuminata banana. The experiment began at Queensland University of Technology in Australia in the lab of biotechnology professor James Dale. Dale explained to the Post that he was inspired after hearing from banana farmers that the Musa acuminata banana was “growing happily in plantations devastated by TR4,” in Malaysia and Indonesia. 

After years of testing, Dale’s team isolated the genes from the Musa acuminata that make it resistant to TR4 and inserted those genes into Cavendish banana cells. After finding success conducting the experiment in test tubes, the lab moved to whole plants. In 2012, they planted a small field of the genetically modified cells, most of which were able to keep growing after the fungus was introduced to the plants. The next step is growing these modified bananas in different areas, and hopefully, to make the Cavendish plant more resistant to TR4.

Dale’s work with gene modification could be the solution to fighting a TR4 infestation without drastically altering the pleasant texture and flavor of the Cavendish banana. However, the Post reports that without researchers also working to eradicate the fungus, the Cavendish still may not be saved.

Even if he can’t protect Cavendish crops forever, Dale’s work with genetically modified bananas has been greatly successful in other areas. His team of scientists recently created the “golden banana,” a vitamin A-rich Cavendish banana that could greatly improve nutrition in rural Uganda. By inserting a gene from a small, vitamin A-rich banana from Papua New Guinea into larger Cavendish plants, Dale’s team successfully created a nutrient-dense banana. Considering that bananas are a staple in Ugandan cooking and vitamin deficiencies are rampant, Dale’s new banana could help Ugandan farmers grow vitamin A-rich bananas by 2021