Fruitful Research

Yes, we have lots of bananas, but scientists want to find more.

Bananas, it turns out, are not what we thought they were.

Sure most, when ripe are yellow and sweet. But a global survey finds many appealing counterparts to the generic banana found in supermarkets : Edible varieties can be red or blue, squat or bulbous, seeded or seedless.

Julie Sardos, a botanist at the Biodiversity International research group and an author of study in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, analyzed with her colleagues genetic material from hundreds of different bananas and found that at least three wild banana ancestors have not yet been discovered by botanists.

Those wild ancestors could provide ways to strengthen banana crops against disease.

Wild bananas, or Musa acuminata, have flesh packed with seeds that render the fruit almost inedible.

Scientists think bananas were domesticated more 7,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. Humans on the island at the time bred the plants to produce fruit without being fertilized and to be seedless.

As trading routes spread, the new banana picked up genetic complexity as farmers crossbred it with other wild banana species in regions that became Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

But the data also suggested ''that there was some domestication in parts of the South Pacific which had not previously been considered,'' said James LeebensMack, a plant biologist at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the study.

Seedless bananas are sterile, and the difficulty of developing new species has led most plantations to grow only one type, the Cavendish, which leaves the entire crop susceptible to disease outbreaks.

Breeders will need to go back to wild bananas to diversify banana genetics and make crops more resilient. {Oliver Whang}


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