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International project seeks new varieties to save the banana from extinction

A recent Food Navigator article highlighted the progress of a global research initiative to help prevent the extinction of the banana. This fruit, which is very popular in the world, is an important food and commercial crop in tropical and subtropical regions.

The most common banana variety is the Cavendish variety. Approximately 95% of the international banana trade and half of the world production belong to this variety. However, the production of Cavendish bananas faces a global threat after the outbreak of the disease caused by Fusarium, also known as Panama disease, tropical race 4, or TR4 disease.

The disease is spreading around the world at an alarming rate, similar to the first Fusarium Race 1 epidemic of the 1950s, which destroyed the entire crop of the then Gros Michel banana variety in Central America.

To address the problem, the Accelerated Breeding of Better Bananas (ABBB) international research program, which is financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on improving banana production and production capacity in East Africa's highlands.

The project is structured around five strategic objectives: genetic improvement of the banana; control of pests and diseases; taking advantage of genetic traits in the improvement of banana; empower end-users; and exploiting the data. The goal of the project is to develop new varieties and improve local production systems and crop protection.

Other institutions, such as Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and KeyGene, are partnering with the ABBB program to help combat the problem. ABBB, in turn, is coordinated by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

The commitment of this alliance is to contribute to the development of new banana varieties that are suitable for cultivation in East Africa and, above all, that are resistant to the devastating Panama disease.

Genetic markers
The joint team will work on genetic markers that will allow African plant breeders to develop banana varieties that are resistant to TR4 more effectively.

Genetic markers are identifiable DNA sequences that are found at specific locations of the genome and associated with the inheritance of a trait or linked gene. Thus, the combination of traditional genetic improvement techniques and molecular biology makes it possible to directly select the individuals carrying the genes of interest.

These markers will allow breeders to use DNA tests to select seedlings resistant to TR4, significantly improving the effectiveness of breeding programs.

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