17 Dec How synthetic biology could solve our banana problem
The next time you stop by your local supermarket, take a long, hard look at the yellow bananas in the produce section. That’s because bananas might be extinct within just a few years, say Dutch researchers, and that could open the door for synthetic biologists to come up with a new, synthetically modified banana to replace the yellow Cavendish banana we’ve come to know and love.
This new, synthetically modified banana would look like a real banana and taste like a real banana and it would have almost exactly the same DNA as a real banana — except that it would be engineered in a bio-foundry by a team of technologists. This genetically engineered banana would have some of its genetic material designed or edited to behave differently than it does now.
But let’s back up for a second. Why on earth would anyone actually want to create such a Frankenbanana? It all goes back to the research findings published by the group of scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who claim that an aggressive fungus known as “Panama Disease” is at risk of wiping out the Cavendish banana – the world’s most popular banana – within a few years.
This wouldn’t be the first time Panama Disease struck – in the 1960s, it drove another type of banana – the Gros Michel – to near-extinction. What’s concerning is that a new strain of Panama Disease has now appeared, for which bananas have no real defense. Moreover, the new strain appears to be resistant to current fungicides. Oh, and Cavendish bananas account for 99 percent of all bananas in the world, so this is a big problem.
Right now, the fungus is found primarily in Asia (and also parts of Africa, the Middle East and Australia), but once it hits Latin America, watch out. That’s because 80 percent of all Cavendish bananas are cultivated in Latin America – in the so-called banana republics. If these bananas are unable to resist the new fungus, that’s when the Cavendish banana could be headed for extinction.
“Until new, commercially viable, and resistant banana cultivars reach markets,” the Dutch researchers write, “Any potential disease management option needs to be scrutinized, thereby lengthening the commercial lifespan of contemporary banana accessions.”
In other words, banana lovers worldwide are in deep trouble unless we figure out a way to make bananas somehow resistant to Panama Disease.