This study is bananas. Millenia of inbreeding have made the yellow fruit delicious and nutritious — but vulnerable to disease.
Scientists tracing the banana’s wild family tree found that the plant hasn’t crossbred for 7,000 years. In fact, bananas don’t have sex at all. The typical supermarket specimen is an infertile clone with the prim name “Cavendish,” genetically identical to its banana brothers.
Creepy? Not really. It’s the sort of horticultural tinkering that yields a consistently yummy snack with a built-in wrapper. There is a downside, however: the bananas’ genetic similarity makes them wimps when it comes to disease, pests and other ecological annoyances. “This means that any disruption to the supply of bananas will have immediate consequences … possibly leading to famines,” said Mark Donohue, co-author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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The scientists say it’s time to stop monkeying around and get those bananas mating to create a more diverse gene pool. They recommend starting with local varieties, from the South American Manzano to ladyfingers to the Red Dacca, which is said to have light pink flesh, a raspberry flavor and a creamy texture. “Given the different kinds of climate we see, from New Guinea to South East Asia, there’s probably a specialized variety, already being grown or present in the wild, that can hit that [disease resilient] niche quite well if we could only find it,” says Donahue.
A banana famine isn’t as far-fetched as it seems: the Gros Michel cultivar graced banana splits until the early 20th century, when Panama disease devastated the fruit and left us with the less tasty Cavendish. According to legend, the incident inspired the hit 1923 tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” We don’t really need another song like that.