This is how synthetic biology will solve our banana problem

Researchers have found out that bananas might be extinct within just a few years. This may have open the door for synthetic biologists to come up with a new idea of making synthetically modified banana to replace the yellow Cavendish banana that we have come to know and love.

This modified banana will look like real banana and even have the same taste since it has the same DNA as of real banana. But the only difference is that it will be engineered in a bio-foundry by a team of technologists. This genetically engineered banana would have some of its genetic material designed or edited to behave differently than it does now.

But wait a minute, why would anyone actually create such a Frankenbanana? Research published by a group of scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, claims that an aggressive fungus known as “Panama Disease” is at risk of wiping out the Cavendish banana, the world’s most popular banana within a few years.

This is not the first time Panama Disease struck in the 1960s. It drove another type of banana, the Gros Michel, to near-extinction. What’s concerning is that a new strain of Panama Disease has now appeared, for which bananas have no real defense. Moreover, the new strain appears to be resistant to current fungicides. Oh, and Cavendish bananas account for 99 percent of all bananas in the world, so this is a big problem.

Right now, the fungus is found primarily in Asia (and also parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Australia), but once it hits Latin America, watch out. That’s because 80 percent of all Cavendish bananas are cultivated in Latin America — in the so-called banana republics. If these bananas are unable to resist the new fungus, that’s when the Cavendish banana could be headed for extinction.

“Until now, commercially viable, and resistant banana cultivars reach markets,” the Dutch researchers write, “Any potential disease management option needs to be scrutinized, thereby lengthening the commercial lifespan of contemporary banana accessions.”

In other words, banana lovers worldwide are in deep trouble unless we figure out a way to make bananas somehow resistant to Panama Disease.

In this case, the DNA of the Cavendish banana could be genetically engineered to resist the Panama Disease that the Dutch researchers isolated as the source of a potential banana extinction. The fungus attacks the banana by destroying the banana plant’s water-transporting mechanism, causing it to wilt rapidly and die of dehydration. So any edits to the banana DNA would need to figure out a way to rehydrate the banana — or prevent the fungus from striking in the first place.

Of course, the idea of a genetically engineered banana is just conjecture. There is no synthetic banana currently available on the marketplace (although researchers have found a way to create bacteria that smells like bananas — yum!).

However, there are a growing number of genetically-engineered foods that are being created. Would you believe meat that’s made in a laboratory? Or eggs that have been derived from plants, not chickens? Or how about milk that’s made from genetically-engineered yeast? Some synthetic biology innovators even talk about a “post-animal bio-economy,” in which we don’t even need animals to produce certain dairy or protein products. The company producing milk from bacteria is called Muufri. Pronounce the name the right way, and you get what the big idea is — “moo-free” milk. Milk without cows, mind blown.

Thanks to current gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR, it’s possible to create apples that don’t turn brown after you slice them and potatoes that don’t bruise. Recently, the FDA approved genetically-engineered salmon that’s able to grow faster than regular salmon, marking the arrival of the first-ever genetically-engineered food product that has been approved for human consumption within the United States.

the original article was published in the Washington Post

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