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Discovery could save bananas from extinction

Words by Smiley Team

Bananas have shown a steady presence on supermarket shelves. But in plantations, farmers are struggling to keep up with demand. Over the last couple of years, this packed lunch staple has suffered due to a disease for which scientists have just found a potential cure.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered a plant-grafting technique that could be applied to important crops including dates, wheat and oats as well as bananas, to protect them against disease. 

Grafting involves attaching a shoot from a vulnerable plant to the root of a disease-resistant variety. This way the weaker plant should acquire the cells of the stronger one that will protect it against disease.

Lead researcher Professor Julian Hibberd said: “There’s a possibility that it could be applied to important crops such as bananas.”

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Previously, scientists believed it was impossible to graft onto plants such as bananas. Coming from a plant family known as monocots, they lack cambium tissue which allows plants to naturally regenerate. 

“I have written on the record that I thought it was near impossible,” Colin Turnbull from Imperial College London told New Scientist.

But the Cambridge research team remained determined.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that the scientist would ever say something is impossible,” said Dr Greg Reeves who developed the technique.

To allow the graft to attach itself to a root, Julian and his team took embryonic tissue from a plant seed and sandwiched it between the two plant halves. This allows the two species to fuse together.

The team checked the plants were fully bonded by passing fluorescent dyes through the root system and shoots.

Being cheap and nutritious, bananas offer an important food source for people in developed countries. This food source has diminished due to the Panama disease devastating crops across Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Africa.

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