Deadly Banana Fungus Overcome with Genetic Modifications

by Violet Wallerstein

Panama disease is a disease caused by fungus that has been affecting banana crops for years and devastating the plants all over the world. However, scientists have recently created a genetically modified banana that can resist Panama disease. According to Science Magazine, these genetically modified bananas are being grown in Australia with two different modifications remaining completely unaffected by the fungus.

Bananas are a staple food for many people and consumed all over the world. The most popular banana in the 1950s, Gros Michel, was destroyed by Panama disease as well and replaced by the Cavendish banana. Fun side note: the Gros Michel is the banana used for banana flavored candies which is why people may not think banana candies taste like banana. The Cavendish now makes up more than 40 percent of banana harvests, but the fungus causing Panama disease has now adapted and affects this breed as well.

For a while, it seemed that the world would lose the Cavendish as well as different local bananas that are often grown with it to provide genetic diversity. Fungicides did not have an effect on Panama disease, and steps such as disinfecting tools did not do enough to stop the disease. The fungus is quickly spread and can span continents rapidly.

Researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia have added a gene from an impervious banana strain to the Cavendish, RGA2. They created six strains with varying numbers of this gene inserted into their genome. An addition gene was tested, Ced9, which is a nematode gene known to be resistant to fungi that are dangerous to plants.

The control bananas with no modifications to their genomes were affected 67 to 100 percent of the time when exposed to the fungus; the different transformed lines were only affected 20 percent of the time with the same exposure, and two lines were completely unaffected, one with the RGA2 gene and another with the Ced9 insert.

While consumers may not be excited about genetically modified products, this is one way to protect the world’s banana crops. There are other options such as diversifying the bananas that are grown to include more local bananas that are resistant to disease, but this is one way to protect specifically the Cavendish, the most popular banana.

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