Want to save bananas? Put them in the CRISPR
The banana is in the midst of a crisis. Not only has the eggplant supplanted it as our penis joke fruit of choice, but an infectious fungus called Tropical Race 4, a strand of the Panama disease, has for years ravaged global supplies of the fruit. The problem is so pervasive that the entire industry is scrambling to save itself from possible doom. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned in 2016 that, to survive, the banana industry needs to “tackle one of the world's most destructive banana diseases” as soon as possible.
Scientists at Tropic Biosciences are stepping in with a solution: use CRISPR gene editing to build a disease-resistant banana—and then clone it until it repopulates the global supply. Tropic Biosciences, which today announced that it had received $10 million in funding to commercialize its genetically engineered banana clones, may be the formidable yellow fruit’s best chance at staying in our kitchens.
The reason the Panama disease is so destructive is inbreeding. In 2011, researchers found that, over the last 7,000 years, bananas have been bred for uniformity to such an extent that, as resident banana biologist Rob Dunn put it in an article for WIRED, they are “identical in the way that identical human twins are identical and even a tiny bit more so.”
From a business perspective, that makes sense—bananas are more attractive to consumers because they can be relied on for the same size, color, and flavor. But it also means that a disease that kills one banana could bring down the rest with it.
Historically, that’s been borne out. Strains of Panama disease have plagued the fruit since 1890, and in the 1960s, one destroyed what was then the most predominant variety—the Gros Michel (nicknamed, for some reason, “Big Mike”). The Cavendish banana, the species that today comprises 90 percent of our supply, replaced it because it looked identical to the Gros Michel.
But with a new strain of Panama disease gunning for our most trusted fruit, Tropic Biosciences is stepping in. The $36 billion banana industry is desperate for a Cavendish replacement, and Tropic Biosciences is their best bet at engineering a strand that is disease-resistant, cloneable, and not terrible in taste. If the company succeeds, the banana might be saved—and maybe then it will earn its rightful place in the emoji library.