Did you know that Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined? The banana is the eight most important food crop in the world, an $8.9 billion dollar industry. There are over 1,000 varieties of bananas. However, one variety makes up most of the banana population. It is the Cavendish, accounting for forty-five percent of all bananas. Because on this lack of variation in bananas, viruses can be extremely dangerous. If a virus can harm one Cavendish, it can harm all of them.
The world banana crop has been under attack for years from Black Sigatoka disease. Although with the newly introduced TR4 (Tropical Race 4) strain, it has lowered banana production by about four percent from 2011 to 2012. TR4 disease has been around since the 1980s, but has just now spread to Africa and the Middle East. No chemicals have been effective against the Tropical Race 4 strain. Experts say the disease will eventually reach Latin America. The time table is just unclear. For thing is for certain: The Cavendish is in danger right now. This means Americans could be saying goodbye to the Cavendish Banana and a new type of banana could replace it in the food markets.
The key to saving the bananas is in their genetics. Knowing the genetic sequences of bananas can help scientists breed more resilient varieties. Scientists have sequenced the banana genome for the first time, a major advance in the field. Angélique D’Hont, a geneticist at CIRAD, an agricultural research center in Montpelier, France says “Because the future of the banana is in danger, the sequence will help to produce resistant bananas and avoid the utilization of pesticides. It will be much easier now to identify genes which are important.” Bananas do not reproduced sexually. Instead, they are cultivated through vegetative propagation, the cutting off of a section of one plant to grown on its own. Other African crops undergo the same process. For example, sweet potatoes, cassava, and hams all undergo vegetative propagation. Because of this, every banana is an exact clone of the other bananas. As mentioned earlier, this can be problematic. If one Cavendish Banana gets a virus, all Cavendish Bananas get the virus. Today, large amounts of pesticides are being used to prevent the death of banana crops.
The sequence that was identified by the researchers gives a positive outlook of the fate of the Cavendish Banana. The researchers were able to identify the genes that were involved in ripening after the application of ethylene. The sequence also revealed that the banana has duplicated its entire genome three times. Cavendish Bananas have three copies of each chromosome, each copy being different. This makes very hard for scientists to study the Cavendish. Finding the genetic sequence is a big step to a better banana. It is possible that future varieties of bananas will be able to resist disease and drought.
In the early 1900s, before the Cavendish, there was a banana called Gros Michel. In the 1950s, a strain of Panama disease wiped out the plantations in Central and South America. Shortly after, producers switched to the Cavendish. The banana industry was saved. However, in the late 1990s to present day, a new strain appeared and begun to spread. Scientists fear what happened in the 1950s could happen again. Thousands of hectares of Cavendish have already been destroyed and many will follow if we are unable to stop Panama disease. If you would like to learn more about that sad fate of the Cavendish please visit http://panamadisease.org/ or become a Banana Friend Forever by going to https://www.facebook.com/BananaFriendForever