One of the world’s largest banana tissue companies Rahan Meristem is trialling banana varieties showing “true resistance” to Black Sigatoka, but the research has been enveloped by an air of secrecy.
The major breeding group has been collaborating with leading bioinformatic company Evogene to develop banana varieties showing tolerance to the devastating leaf-spot disease.
Black Sigatoka affects more than 50% of the global US$2.5 billion (£2 billion) banana crop, according to Evogene.
It has the capacity to reduce yields by 35-50%, causing tremendous impact to growers in major producing countries of Central America, the Caribbean Islands, Africa and the Far East.
Speaking PBUK, Rahan scientific director Dr. Eli Khayat said issues relating to intellectual property prevented him from disclosing technical details of the trials, but divulged the resistance “seems to be real” and was “very exciting.”
“For several years we’ve been looking at banana plants there were genetically engineering to confer resistance to Black Sigatoka disease,” he said.
When asked, he was unable to provide details of where the trials were taking place.
“We’ve been using what I call a cisgenic approach, which means we are using genes from the Musa acuminata species that have resistance. The approach showed success and we have engineered plants that have resistance to the disease,” he said.
“I cannot disclose how much resistance or what are the parameters that we’re looking at, but basically speaking, we see resistance.”
Many banana varieties of Musa acuminata, which are native to Southeast Asia, are not grown commercially, but a large proportion show strong tolerance to the disease.
“The resistance seems to be real and we’re continuing to pursue this, but I cannot give details of exact status,” he said.
“It is very exciting for us, because this is the first time that we really see full resistance.”
Khayat said the goal was to commercialise the varieties, but he highlighted consumer perceptions of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could prove a challenge.
“People are reluctant, especially big companies. They are not interested in contaminating their name, so to speak, with GMO,” he said.
“We know it’s completely safe and there’s no problem, but public acceptance is very poor.”
However, he added today there were alternative technologies like genome editing – that are more favourably perceived and subject to lower regulation – that could achieve similar results to genetic engineering.