Engineering a better banana
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.
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)
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)
Such storage allows for regeneration of plant tissue whenever it's needed.
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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