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Australian scientists work to save the banana with fungus resistance trials

A slippery skid awaits the banana if the hazard is not removed. So in a field near Humpty Doo in Australia's Northern Territory, scientists are racing to begin an experiment that could determine the future of the world's most popular fruit.

Researchers will soon place into the soil plants that they hope will produce standard Cavendish bananas - the curved, yellow variety representing 99 per cent of all bananas sold in the United States.

The plants have been modified with genes from a different banana variety.

A fungus known as fusarium wilt has wiped out tens of thousands of hectares of Cavendish plantations in Australia and South-east Asia over the past decade and recently gained a foothold in Africa and the Middle East.

Scientists said Latin America, the source of virtually all the bananas eaten in the US, is next.

"These recent outbreaks confirmed that this thing does move," said plant pathologist Randy Ploetz of the University of Florida, who identified the fungus in 1989 in samples from Taiwan.

Ever since, farmers have been trying to escape the effects of fusarium wilt, also known as Panama disease Tropical Race 4, or TR4. Once it hits a farm, the only recourse is to eradicate the plants and start over.

Ironically, a major obstacle to replacing today's Cavendish with a TR4-resistant strain is the industry, which, for the most part, has dropped out of doing research, said Prof Ploetz. The result is that very few scientists have been focusing on the problem directly.

This means that even if the transgenic experiment in Humpty Doo is successful, the TR4 fungus' march to Latin America may be inevitable.

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