Genetic improvement has reached bananas. The results of the first phase of the Banana Genome program were presented yesterday, July 20, in Brazilian capital BrasÀlia.
Researchers managed to map 10% of the fruit genome and created a genetic data bank, the DataMusa, in reference to the scientific name of the plant – Musa spp. The research promises to save the species that is threatened with extinction.
The data bank has 40,000 sequences of DNA and another 5,000 genes. Manoel Teixeira Souza Júnior, a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and coordinator of the program in Brazil, stated that the genetic information will help in the following phases of the project, including the development of plants resistant to diseases, like the Black Sigatoka, which has been killing crops all around the world.
According to the researcher, in this first phase over 20 genes with interesting characteristics for the genetic improvement of bananas were identified.
Through them new varieties of the fruit will be developed. Apart from species that are resistant to the disease, fruit with greater nutritional value may also be developed.
Another contribution of this project is with regard to productivity of the plant, which is very low in Brazil, 13.4 tons per hectare, and that may be improved through genetic sequencing.
In other countries that are producers, as is the case with Costa Rica and Ecuador, production totals over 40 tons per hectare, according to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The studies for the deciphering of banana DNA began three years ago, through a world consortium, established by research institutions from 16 countries, which collected US$ 230,000.
In Brazil, 20 professionals, among them students, scholars and researchers are working on the program, which is executed by the Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, in partnership with the Catholic University of Brasília (UCB) and with the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (Cirad).
In 2003, the program gained strength after an alert by Belgian scientist Emile Frison, head of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, in Montpellier, France.
At the time, he said to magazine New Scientist that the plant was lacking genetic diversity so as to resist Black Sigatoka, and, for this reason, the banana was threatened with extinction.
Environmentalists and naturalists turned their noses, but genetic improvement was the solution proposed by the researcher.
The scientist’s statement was based on a not distant past. In the 1950’s the so-called Panama Disease killed out Gros Michel banana cultivars, one of the only crops for export. The species went into extinction. The world market had to change its preferences and accept the Cavendish family.
The reason for the vulnerability of bananas to diseases is that the plant is sterile, being grown from vegetable material – the trunk, for example, making all plants in the species very similar.
This similarity may become a problem when faced with ailments like Panama Disease and Sigatoka, when, so as to save the species, it is necessary to find plants with different characteristics to be used in improvement programs.
“Diseases also increase the cost of production, making it necessary to invest in pesticides. Production becomes impossible for small farmers,” added Souza Júnior.
According to a study by the Embrapa, in the Amazon, since 1998, when Black Sigatoka came to Brazil, production has suffered serious damages, many farmers having given up their plantations.
Brazil is currently the second largest Banana producer in the world, losing only to India. Last year, production total led 6.6 million tons, with a turnover of little over US$ 1 billion. The country has 10% of the entire world banana production.
Apart from the Cavendish type, Brazil also produces and consumes Apple and Fruit bananas. The southeastern Brazilian state of São Paulo is the main producer, with 16.4% of the market, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Exports of the fruit are not yet very representative. Last year, banana foreign sales generated US$ 27 million to Brazil. The countries in the European Union were the main buyers, having paid around US$ 15 million for Brazilian bananas.
So as to proceed with the Brazilian Banana Genome program, the Embrapa has the support of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and of international institutions.
“We have cooperation projects with organizations in France and Belgium,” stated Souza Júnior. England, Japan and the Czech Republic should also contribute to the program.
Apart from banana, the Embrapa is also working on the genetic sequence of coffee. Last year the company announced the conclusion of the first phase of this program. Plants like eucalyptus, sorghum, soy, maize and wheat are also awaiting funds for the deciphering of their DNA.
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