Speaking at the 7th International Banana Congress, researcher Orlando Argüello, of the University of Texas, stated that the CRISPR-CAS method, used in the genetic research of cancer, could help the banana industry to respond effectively to the threat of Fusarium fungus Race 4.
The scientist, born in Costa Rica, spoke with Efe at the closing day of the 7th Congress, which has brought about 600 people together in Miami, including producers, marketers, suppliers, researchers, nutritionists and authorities from 40 countries.
In the program of the event, organised by the National Banana Corporation (Corbana) of Costa Rica, there was a strong focus on Fusarium Race 4, which is not present in Latin America, but which is an issue in Asian, African and Australian countries.
Argüello pointed out that CRISPR-CAS makes it possible to select a specific sequence in the genome of a living organism and make a "cut", unlike with previous methods of genetic improvement, in which the cuts were random and it took much longer to get the desired result.
When a cut is made in a DNA sequence, the biochemical machinery of the living organism in question is set in motion to repair it and introduce changes, which can give it genetic variability and thus more resistance to certain pathogens, he explained.
The problem with bananas is that there is little genetic variability, because only a few varieties are marketed, and that makes them more vulnerable to threats like the Fusarium Race 4.
The so-called FOC R4T Command, which is the group of international scientists devoted to fighting this fungus, attended the Congress and listened to scientists from other fields, such as Argüello, who in his statements to Efe stressed that he and the laboratory of the University of Texas using CRISPR-CAS are not working with plants.
But in other laboratories, the method had been used up to 2016 in plants like corn, sorghum, tomato and wine grapes, as pointed out by the Costa Rican scientist, who believes that it would be worthwhile to try it on bananas.
However, he warned that in order for CRISPR-CAS to be effective, it is necessary to conduct research to determine the sequences of banana DNA that would have to be cut in order to give the plant more resistance to pathogens.
"We should focus specifically on genes that can produce resistance," he said.
It is an "incipient but very effective technology," concluded Argüello, who believes that it is good for scientists to leave the laboratories and explain possible applications of advances that are still unknown outside them.
At the Congress, the FOC R4T Command recommended to reinforce security measures and maintain an articulated work among producers, governments and scientists from the different banana producing countries facing the threat of Fusarium Race 4.
In Latin America, more than 12 million people whose work is devoted to the banana industry would be affected by the spread of this fungus, which causes an infection in the plants' roots, making them wither, and can cause the total loss of plantations, reported Corbana.
"For every hectare planted in Latin America, five members of a family depend on the crop, meaning that the subsistence of 12 million people would be at stake," said Carlos Urías, Regional Director of Plant Protection at the Regional International Agricultural and Livestock Health Organization (OIRSA).