Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mutant Bananas: A Pretty Good Idea, Actually

"Bananas Get Pepper Power"
Emily Sohn, Earth News, Discovery News (August 23, 2010)

"Bananas might have gained a new weapon against a devastating disease: The green pepper.

"By genetically modifying bananas with two green pepper genes, scientists have managed to give bananas resistance to Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), a bacteria that is sweeping through plantations in East and Central Africa. BXW causes about half a billion dollars in damage each year.

"There is currently no good way to stop BXW. There are no varieties of banana that are resistant to it. And there are many other diseases like it spreading worldwide.

" 'Once this disease is in the field, that's an absolute loss because farmers cannot save anything,' said Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kampala, Uganda. 'The economic consequences are quite high.'...

This sounds like a good idea. Particularly considering how important the things are: and not just for making banana splits.

"...Bananas are one of the most important sustenance crops in the world. In Uganda, Tripathi said, a single person often eats more than three pounds of banana a day. In the United States, people eat more bananas than any other fresh fruit, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, averaging about 26 pounds per person each year...."

Bioengineering better bananas: we don't have many options.

One reason that disease spreads so quickly in banana plantations is that the trees in a plantation are usually genetically identical to each other. Bananas can't reproduce sexually: they don't make seeds that will grow.

That means that it's impossible to breed new strains of bananas. The plants don't breed.

The good news is that we've now got ways to take genes from one creature and put them in another. Sounds spooky, but it's pretty much the same sort of thing we've been doing for millennia, by breeding plants and animals. And, for that matter, grafting the branches from one tree onto another's trunk or roots.


"...In 2005, Tripathi and colleagues started investigating the potential of two genes from green peppers that have been infused into other plants and have provided resistance to bacterial diseases. In lab conditions, they found that normal bananas developed severe symptoms of BXW in just 12 days.

"Six out of eight lines of their transgenic bananas, on the other hand, developed no symptoms at all. They reported some of their findings in the journal Molecular Plant Pathology...."

Provided that the disease-resistant bananas don't produce allergic reactions in humans, or have other problems: looks like folks who depend on bananas for their food and livelihood will get a break soon.

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