The banana has its earliest origins in Papua New Guinea, where it was domesticated by indigenous communities at least 7,000 years ago. This ancestor, Musa acuminata, looks very different from the well-known Cavendish banana: peeling back its skin reveals hundreds of large, hard seeds that enable easy reproduction in the wild.
Today, a colorful mix of wild bananas still grow throughout the humid forests of New Guinea. However, deforestation and fires are decimating tropical and subtropical forests across the South Pacific, risking both the ancestors and the possible future of the banana in general.
Wild bananas represent a largely untapped wealth of genetic diversity. Sebastien Carpentier, a scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, explains: "It's very important for breeders to have access to crop wild relatives of bananas to help them find the traits that they are looking for."
At the International Musa Germplasm Transit Center (ITC) in Leuven, Belgium, the Alliance manages the world's largest collection of banana germplasm. Yet despite currently holding 1,617 banana accessions, the gene bank only scratches the surface of wild banana diversity. Bart Panis, a senior scientist based at the ITC, notes: "We don't know how much is out there."
In-situ conservation is becoming less likely with the loss of the wild bananas' habitat, therefore scientists like Panis are working against the odds to "fill in the gaps" by collecting samples in their native habitat, then transporting them to gene banks for further research and ex-situ conservation.