[...] Emile Frison, head of the Montpellier-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, told New Scientist magazine that the banana business could be defunct within a decade. [...] Almost all the varieties of banana grown today are cuttings - clones, in effect - of naturally mutant wild bananas discovered by early farmers as much as 10,000 years ago. The rare mutation caused wild bananas to grow sterile, without seeds. Those ancient farmers took cuttings of the mutants, then cuttings of the cuttings. [...]
One ray of hope comes from Honduran scientists, who peeled and sieved 400 tonnes of bananas to find 15 seeds for breeding. They have come up with a fungus-resistant variety which could be grown organically. If bananas don't disappear from supermarket shelves by 2013, they will look, and taste, different.
The banana is to be the first edible fruit to have its genetic code unravelled, a global consortium has announced. [...] The sequence could be of great value to breeders and scientists, who have struggled to overcome the banana's weird characteristics. For example, the classic Cavendish variety exported to Western countries - which is thought to have originated as a natural hybrid thousands of years ago - has three sets of chromosomes instead of two and so cannot reproduce sexually. "Half the world's edible bananas, including the Cavendish, are entirely sterile, and you can't breed them at all," says Frison.
This is why, instead of sequencing one of the edible varieties, the consortium will sequence a wild banana from east Asia. This should contain useful genes that could be added to edible varieties. For instance, a gene that protects against the black Sigatoka fungus, which ravages plantations, would be priceless.
But because interbreeding is impossible, genetic modification is the only way to insert such genes into most commercial varieties. "This is one of the few crops where you could say there's a strong justification for using GM," Frison says.