1:40 min Read
Walk through the produce section of any grocery and you'll find stacks of fresh bananas in hues ranging from jungle greens and eye-popping yellows to those with a reddish blush.
A ruinous outbreak of Panama disease, or banana wilt, in the 1950s killed off the Gros Michel banana. The Cavendish surfaced as one of nature's miracles and a godsend to millions around the world.
Growers rushed to replace their devastated crops with the unique variety and, within a decade or two, Cavendish became king.
After all, it was tasty, marketable, and disease-resistant—or so we thought at the time.
But the winner-take-all Cavendish came with a downside: monoculture. When growers discover and go all in on the "perfect" crop—the tastiest banana, the most french-friable potato, the jauntiest apple—they inherently curb the genetic diversity that is nature's survival strategy.
Any single new fungus, blight or bug can tear through monoculture crops with alarming ease. Why? Because there's no fallback—no alternative, no natural diversity.
Unfortunately, the Cavendish has become the poster-banana for monoculture misfortune. When a new soil-carried fungal disease emerged, called tropical race 4 (TR4), it hit major banana producers across Southeast Asia hard. And despite enormous and expensive efforts to prevent the spread through conventional means, the multi-billion-dollar global banana industry is reeling.
Today's science is hardly the science of 70 years ago, though. On the strength of revolutionary gene editing technology, scientists can rearrange and splice plants' own genetic code to address evolving threats with unprecedented speed and focus.
In the 1950s, the Cavendish banana surfaced as one of nature's miracles and a godsend to millions around the world. Now it’s at risk. But plant scientists are utilizing CRISPR techniques to enhance its resilience and ensure its viability.
Indeed, rather than replacing the Cavendish, plant scientists utilizing CRISPR techniques can merely enhance its resilience and ensure its viability. Recently, CRISPR-driven startups and research ventures have successfully developed a TR4-resistant variety of the Cavendish banana.
This crusade provides a critical window into how gene editing can unlock agronomic solutions in the world of monoculture crops—countering new threats and reintroducing long-term genetic diversity.
So, the next time you peel open a banana, gaze at your fruit before taking a bite. In your hands you'll find more than just a delicious fruit, you'll find a survivor.