Gene-editing tech could save Cavendish bananas from deadly fungus threatening extinction
24 Feb 2023 --- US-based Elo Life Systems, a biotech company targeting food sustainability, is tapping into gene-editing to save Cavendish bananas from a fungus that could potentially wipe out the species.
Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, a company spokesperson, explains why this particular fungus is detrimental to bananas and dives more into the field trial that could save the world’s most popular variety of banana
“The fungus, Fusarium TR4, lives in the soil and infects the circulatory system of the Cavendish banana plants, rotting the plants from the inside out. The Cavendish varieties have no defenses against this disease. Typically, it will kill a banana-producing plant within three years of infection, dramatically reducing the plant’s output during that time.”
The fungus inhabits the soil, and remains in there indefinitely even after infected banana plants are removed. According to Elo Life Systems, Fusarium TR4 has “already dramatically eliminated banana production in Asia and the Middle East, and is now starting to appear in South America.”
The banana industry has responded by moving production to new locations. When they move, that often means cutting down forests to clear the land for banana trees. For small growers, who may own a small plot of land and do not have the ability to move, the fungus can mean losing their livelihoods.
Bananas are also grown as clones, each identical to the original plant; a pathogen that kills one plant can easily kill the rest. Growing more varieties of bananas would make farms more resilient to disease, although multiple species are susceptible to Fusarium TR4.
Crops need to be more resilient, technology can help
Like all living systems, plants have the ability to adapt to changing environments. But the spokesperson says climate change is “accelerating the risks faced by crops around the globe, and new technologies are needed to accelerate their adaptation to be more resilient.”
On a Dole banana plantation in Central America, a field trial is being set up to test Cavendish bananas that have been gene-edited in an attempt to help them survive the fungus.
Moreover, with Elo’s research, the company has been able to identify solutions using its plant genetics and data analytics expertise to compare more than 50 genomes of banana varieties and other related crops.
“Through that process, we identified targets that protect Cavendish plants from the fungus. And we identified those targets and created resistant plants in just three years. That is incredibly fast, and an example of what technology can do to help plants adapt more quickly,” the spokesperson details.
Elo tested the fungus resistant Cavendish plants in a greenhouse, exposing them to levels of the fungus higher than what’s found in affected growing fields.
“The plants proved to be resistant, and now are on their way for testing in Honduras,” they say, adding that this technology could help other fruits and vegetables thrive.
“We work with a cornucopia of different plant varieties. The same techniques can be used to save other favorite fruits and vegetables threatened by extinction. And each time we learn something new in one crop, we are looking for ways to apply it in other areas.”
Threat of extinction
Elo believes “we are running out of time to stop the spread of this fungus.”
“It’s only a matter of time before the Cavendish banana would become extinct if we didn’t find a solution,” the spokesperson claims.
The Cavendish banana is a staple of diets in nearly every country of the world, and much of the banana supply chain is built around its production. A key nutrient in the Cavendish, potassium, has been shown to help prevent the development of osteoporosis and was recently flagged by the European Food Safety Authority as a critical deficiency in many European diets.
“Saving the Cavendish is a win for everyone,” they add.
If successful, banana production around the world will continue to supply global markets with the same quantity of bananas that consumers enjoy today, the spokesperson comments.
Dole’s banana plantations
Companies like Dole are seeking alternative solutions amid the challenges that Fusarium TR4 has brought to its crops.
Since it takes time for the trees to grow, the new plants at the Dole plantation are not ready to show success.
However, in lab trials, the gene-edited bananas survived high doses of the fungus. They’ll now go on to be grown and tested in Dole’s nurseries, and then moved into fields that are not in use because they’re infected with the fungus.
By the end of this year, researchers should know whether the plants can survive and perform as well as the original banana trees. Other startups are also racing to test gene-edited bananas.
As climate change makes it harder to grow crops, the expectation at Elo Life Systems is that similar work will be needed for other foods.
Elo’s expertise and knowledge in this field are being touted to help solve other challenges created by climate change that threaten critical food crops, ensuring a plentiful supply of healthy and great tasting foods for generations to come.
As climate changes continue to impact global food systems, more technology is going to be needed to save food crops.
Edited by Elizabeth Green
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