Leicester botanist explains dangers of disease to banana production

Posted by mjs76 at May 16, 2011 11:21 AM |
Yes, we could soon have no bananas.

Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison from our Molecular Cytogenetics Research Group was featured in a report on The One Show on Friday in a segment about bananas and the dangers which this important crop faces from disease, especially a new strain of Panama disease.

Presenter Jay Rayner was filmed among the stalls of Leicester market and in the University of Leicester greenhouses where Pat described the genetic variability – or rather, the lack thereof – in current banana crops.

Despite the vast number of banana varieties available, virtually all commercially grown bananas are the same: a type called Cavendish which originated in Mauritius and spread around the world via Chatsworth House and Samoa. Nowadays, bananas are the fourth most important crop on the planet (see previous Newsblog story) and the economies of about 30 countries depend, wholly or in part, on the fruit.

Before Cavendish became the dominant variety, a banana called Big Mike was popular but this was wiped out by Panama disease. Now a new strain of the disease, TR4, is attacking Cavendish which, like most commercially grown fruits, has no genetic variability: new plants are created from cuttings of existing ones. (Top marks to Rayner for correct and non-sensational use of the term ‘clone’ to describe this situation.)

Interestingly, the reason why cultivated bananas such as Cavendish are infertile - which is essential in order to maintain the pure variety – is because they are actually triploid, with three sets of chromosomes.

You can watch the programme on iPlayer until Friday 20 May; the bananas report runs from 11.02 to 15.36. And you can read more about Cavendish bananas, Panama disease and the dangers of genetic non-variation in Pat’s latest post on the Annals of Botany blog.

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