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Saving bananas at Norwich Science Festival with the Earlham Institute

01 February 2024

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Appearing at this year’s Norwich Science Festival on the 17, 18 and 21 Feb, a new interactive activity will invite the public to explore strange and unfamiliar bananas from around the world in an attempt to find genes that might protect the plants.

Around 5 billion bananas are eaten each year in the UK, according to the Fairtrade Foundation. Almost every single one of those is a yellow, hard-skinned Cavendish banana – the variety which accounts for around half of all bananas grown globally.

Due to the banana’s method of reproduction, all Cavendish banana plants are genetic clones. This renders the Cavendish incredibly vulnerable – unable to adapt to change or the emergence of new threats – and a devastating fungus, Panama disease, is ripping through Cavendish plantations worldwide.

While we could all be forgiven for thinking the fruit we see in supermarkets is the only variety of banana in existence, that is not the case. The Cavendish has thousands of wild and cultivated relatives, and one of them could hold the key to its survival.

At the Earlham Institute, researchers in Dr Jose De Vega’s group are examining dozens of different varieties of banana to see if any of them are resistant to the fungus.

If a resistant banana plant is found, the scientists will look for the gene which makes it resistant and see if it is possible to engineer it into the Cavendish banana – giving it the same immunity.

Dr De Vega says there is an urgent need to boost the resilience of bananas, and the same approach could also be used to protect other vulnerable crops.

“There is no breeding and no crossing,” says De Vega. “Cultivated bananas cannot be bred. Any genetic susceptibility in one plant will be present in all plants of the same species.”

Carolina Olave-Achury is a PhD researcher in the De Vega Group at the Earlham Institute, investigating resistance genes in tropical banana varieties.

In the 1940s, you would have bought different bananas in the supermarket – a large banana with a sweet, creamy flavour known as Gros Michel or ‘Big Mike’.

A variety of the same fungus began infecting Gros Michel plantations worldwide during the 50s. It wiped out hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland, causing worldwide banana shortages and a complete collapse of income for millions of people dependent on the industry.

“You will sometimes hear older people saying that bananas taste different from the bananas they remember eating as a child,” recalls de Vega. “That’s true, because the bananas they ate as children were Gros Michels.”

The Gros Michel was replaced with the Cavendish, and now history is repeating itself – unless researchers can find a way to stop it.

“At the Earlham Institute, we’re investigating a range of banana variants to see what their resistance levels are,” explains de Vega. “So far, we have infected 10 of 20 different varieties.

“Some plants – like the Cavendish – died quickly, and some took far longer to die. And some showed no signs of infection at all.

“These plants – the resistant plants – are the ones we’re most excited about.”

In the Earlham Institute’s ‘Save the Banana!’ activity you will be choosing one of the lesser-known banana varieties, mixing the DNA together, and seeing if your banana could help the Cavendish survive.

The activity will be running on our stand inside the Forum on Saturday 17th, Sunday 18th and Wednesday 21st February.

Entry to the Norwich Science Festival activities in The Forum is free. For more information, visit the official event website.

This was originally posted by our partner, the Earlham Institute, here.

For further information please contact Amy Lyall, Scientific Communications and Outreach Officer at the Earlham Institute on 01603 450994 or amy.lyall@earlham.ac.uk

Image: Carolina Olave-Achury is a PhD researcher in the De Vega Group at the Earlham Institute, investigating resistance genes in tropical banana varieties. Credit: Earlham Institute

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