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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

Engineering a better banana

Researchers study bananas hoping to increase harvests for small farmers  
July 24, 1998
Web posted at: 12:24 p.m. EDT (1224 GMT)

From Correspondent Marsha Walton

LEUVEN, Belgium (CNN) -- Bananas and their cousin the plantain are more than just a snack or desert. For large populations in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, they are an essential food. So where do you find the nerve center of banana research? Belgium.

For 14 years, scientists affiliated with the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) have been working at Catholic University in the city of Leuven to increase banana productivity and eliminate pests that plague the versatile fruit.

At times of the year when other crops are not yet ready for harvesting, bananas may be the only food available, says INIBAP Director Dr. Emile Frison.  (157KB/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Most banana plants are sterile, so conventional cross-breeding doesn't work. But researcher Rony Swennen says there are other ways to produce new plants in the lab.
Windows Media 28K 56K

Frison says the work -- funded in part by individual governments, the World Bank and other economic development agencies -- focuses on increasing the harvest for small farmers, those more likely to be threatened by pests and diseases. (92KB/9 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

One of the most devastating is a leaf-destroying disease called "Black Sigatoka," currently fought with potent chemicals that take a "tremendous toll" on the environment, Frison says. (143K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

One solution being explored by INIBAP scientists is a genetically engineered plant that is disease and pest resistant. In lab experiments, banana tissue is injected with "potentially useful" genes that are resistant to the Sigatoka fungus, Frison says. (137K/12 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Banana fact
In Uganda, the word
for banana -- matoke --
is also the word for food.

Other research involves nematodes -- small worms that destroy banana roots.

Test tubes kept at ultra-cool temperatures at INIBAP's Belgium facility contain tissue cultures from 1,100 varieties of bananas from around the world, explains researcher Rony Swennen. (88K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Banana leaf
One of the most devastating leaf-destroying diseases is called "Black Sigatoka"  

Such storage allows for regeneration of plant tissue whenever it's needed.

While INIBAP does much of its work in a laboratory, banana growers themselves may have useful information that aids in the research, Frison says. (105K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

For a man who spends most of his working hours with bananas, you might think Frison has lost his taste for them. But, no, the fruit you have to peel still has appeal.

"I eat a banana regularly," he says. "Not a banana a day, but almost."

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