Banana-killing fungus has come to Latin America

Scientists are concerned that it could even cause the popular fruit to go extinct
banana-killing fungus A strange fungus has put the banana under threat. (© Kasira Suda - Dreamstime.com)


When we speak about endangered species, a lot of our discussion is usually about animal species. But plants can be under threat, too. Even very delicious ones.

In this case, we're talking about the fate of bananas. Officials in Colombia have declared a national emergency after a banana-killing fungus was discovered at one of the country's plantations. And if the phrase 'national emergency' sounds a bit extreme, believe us: This is something Colombia is taking very seriously. The plantation has been quarantined (nothing can come in or out of it) and the infected areas have been destroyed.

So just what is this fungus? And are bananas really endangered now?

A deadly race

A sample of Tropical Race 4 fungus in a lab. (Wikimedia Commons/Keith Weller USDA-ARS)

The banana-killing fungus is Fusarium oxysporum, also known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). It has been a major problem in Asia, Australia, and East Africa for a few decades already. And now it has somehow traveled across the ocean to arrive in the Americas.

Once this fungus arrives in the soil, it attacks the root system of the banana tree. The vascular system is blocked (this is what carries nutrients through the plant), and the tree dies. And what's worse, TR4 cannot be treated with any known fungicides and is extremely difficult to remove from the soil.

Why are bananas so at risk?

Embed from Getty Images

Bananas growing on a plantation. (Getty Embed)

For the moment, bananas are still pretty much everywhere. And yes, it's true TR4 has been around in other parts of the world and it hasn't completely killed off the world's fave yellow fruit (sorry lemons!). In fact, India is the world's biggest banana producer by a wide margin.

So why is everyone in such a banana pana-nic?

Because the bananas that we like to eat are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease. Essentially all bananas eaten in Western countries are from the Cavendish species. These are seedless and reproduce asexually — in other words, every new plant is essentially a clone of its parents and has no real genetic diversity. And in both animals and plants, genetic diversity is what makes a living thing more able to fight off infection and sickness.

In short: the only bananas that we eat are too weak to fight off a deadly fungus that science can't fight either. It is a situation that could turn dire quickly.

Scientists are hopeful that there will be a way to make bananas more resilient to the attacks. This would likely mean using genetically engineering plants that can somehow resist TR4. Until then though, this banana-killing fungus has farmers and fruit lovers on high alert.

Better hug that piece of banana bread extra tight tonight!


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