Team:Wageningen UR/overview/background


Wageningen UR iGEM 2014




Banana plants all over the world are dying and it is not the first time in history. Back in the 1950s 40,000 ha of banana plantations became unproductive for banana production in a period of just 50 years due to a soil-borne pathogen [1]. At that time the banana export depended on the Gros Michel cultivar. This species was largely eradicated by the race 1 strain of the Panama disease that is caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense [2, 3]. As commercially grown bananas are largely sterile clones with a triploid genome, traditional breeding techniques have proven inadequate to develop resistant cultivars [4]. Back then the resistant Cavendish cultivar was identified just in time to replace Gros Michel as the primary banana species for export [2] (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Cavendish cultivar is the primary banana species for export.

In 1992 a new variant of F.oxysporum, tropical race 4 (TR4) was discovered in Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia in Cavendish plantations. Levels have since been seen to rise and to spread throughout the world [5] (Figure 2). In 2013 the presence of race 4 was announced in Jordan, leaving only 20% of the Jordan Valley production area disease free. The biggest banana exporting counties located in Latin America, the Caribbean or West Africa are yet to be affected by this destructive disease but the rapid expansion draws a grim picture for the future of the banana [3, 6].

Figure 2. Spread of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense tropical race 4 (TR4). Latin America and Africa belong to the high risc areas for the spread of TR4. Former spread of race 1 is indicated in green and shows the areas that are now unproductive for Gros Michel production.

Further spread of tropical race 4 will have devastating effects for Cavendish plantations, and other cultivars, including many cooking and dessert bananas. Considering the high susceptibility of several banana cultivars to this almost uncontrollable disease, it has been estimated that 80% of the worldwide production is threatened [2].

In modern agriculture often chemicals such as fungicides can be used for crop protection but not in this case. F.oxysporum is a soil-borne fungus forming fungicide resistant, thick-walled chlamydospores that can survive in the soil for decades. This causes above ground application of fungicides to be ineffective. The fungus secretes phytotoxins, including fusaric acid, that are able to diminish the vitality of plant cells enabling colonization of the plant. F.oxysporum enters the vascular system through the roots and causes wilting and discoloration by vessel plugging and eventually the plant will die [7] (Figure 3). The iGEM team Wageningen 2014 aims to prevent a repetition of the devastating effects that race 1 had in the 1950s and to introduce a system into agriculture that will ensure food safety. This system is called BananaGuard.

Figure 3. Banana plant infected with Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense over time. (a) Healthy banana plants were inoculated with Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense.(b,c) The fungus causes wilting and discoloration (d) untill the plant eventually dies (e) due to plugging of the vascular system (e). Picture (f) shows the vascular system of a healthy banana plant.

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  1. Stover RH (1972) Banana, Plantain and Abaca Diseases. Wallingford, UK: CAB International, 316 pp
  2. Ploetz, RC. (2005) Panama disease, an old nemesis rears its ugly head: part 1, the beginnings of the banana export trades. Plant Health Prog. doi, 10, 1094.
  3. Ploetz, RC. (2006) Panama disease, an old nemesis rears its ugly head: part 2, the cavendish era and beyond. Plant Health Progress
  4. Ortiz, R., Ferris, RSB., & Vuylsteke, DR. (1995). Banana and plantain breeding. In Bananas and plantains (pp. 110-146). Springer Netherlands.
  5. Ploetz, RC. (1994) Panama disease: Return of the first banana menace." International Journal of Pest Management 40(4): 326-336.
  6. García-Bastidas F., Ordóñez, N., Konkol, J., Al-Qasim, M., Naser, Z., Abdelwali, M., Kema, G. H. J. (2014). First report of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense Tropical Race 4 associated with Panama disease of banana outside southeast Asia. Plant Disease, 98(5), 694-694.
  7. Dong, X., Ling, N., Wang, M., Shen, Q., & Guo, S. (2012). Fusaric acid is a crucial factor in the disturbance of leaf water imbalance in Fusarium-infected banana plants. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, 60, 171-179.