Last December I attended a MusaNet workshop on best practices for Musa germplasm collection and data management held at CIRAD’s field collection on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The traditional group photo hints at the diversity of both the experts looking after the world’s bananas and of the bananas themselves. The setting was perfect for discussing the pièce de résistance of the workshop: the Taxonomic Reference Collection (TRC).
Ten years ago the export banana was given until 2013 before being wiped out by Tropical Race 4 (TR4), the particularly virulent Fusarium strain that has been cutting a swath through Southeast Asia’s commercial plantations of Cavendish bananas. 2013 will not go down in history as the year the iconic banana disappeared from supermarket shelves, but it will be remembered nonetheless; as the year the TR4 fungus was first reported in Africa. The news that TR4 had been confirmed in a Cavendish plantation of northern Mozambique came on the heels of the revelation that the fungus has been in Jordan since 2006. It later transpired that TR4 might also have been in Mozambique for a while, as much as two to three years, according to a news piece in the journal Nature.
The Global Musa Genomics Consortium was created in 2001 to bring together the expertise of specialists applying genomics tools to the banana. For the first ten years, members of the Consortium steadily built genomic resources and worked to get the banana genome sequenced. The long-awaited sequence was about to be released when Dr Yasmina Jaufeerally-Fakim, now the dean of Mauritius University’s Faculty of Agriculture, sent a message to the mailing list. As a member, she thought that the Consortium was “a great initiative for getting all researchers on board and for stimulating exchange of information”. She felt, however, that many of the researchers in the South were not actively participating in or benefiting from what was going on and that the Consortium could do more “to get scientists in the South more involved in Musa genomics and the potential applications for improvement”.
The recent publication by Belgian and Malaysian scientists of a draft Musa balbisiana genome sequence in BMC Genomics went largely unnoticed, at least compared to the media attention that surrounded last year’s publication of the Musa acuminata genome sequence. The media may have a limited appetite for banana genomics but not Musa scientists. They knew from the beginning that the so-called A genome was not the whole story. No sooner had its sequence been released that French and Chinese scientists were discussing joining forces to produce a reference sequence for the edible banana’s other founding genome, the B genome donated by Musa balbisiana, which is often associated with tolerance to abiotic stresses. It looks as if they have been beaten to the finish line, but the fact is that the two scientific teams were pursuing different strategies.
The first issue of Musarama (a discontinued INIBAP newsletter not to be confused with ProMusa’s image bank) compared looking for articles on bananas in books of abstracts to gold panning. Finding nuggets of information became easier with the publication of bibliographies on bananas, such as the ones inserted into Musarama starting in 1988. Three years later, the Musalit database was set up but these were still early days for the Internet. Musarama continued to be the only outlet for bibliographical records until Musalit joined the web in 1998. From that point on its search interface remained more or less the same even as online searches were becoming increasingly powerful. But who has the time and patience to sift through the 194,000 hits of a Google Scholar search on the word bananas to find the valid ones, let alone the relevant ones?
A number of news outlets picked up the press release sent by Wiley, Yellow peril: Are banana farms contaminating Costa Rica's crocs?. The question mark in the title must be rhetorical. The press release leaves little doubt that readers are expected to agree with the conclusion of a study calling for banana plantations in Costa Rica to be better regulated because caimans from the Tortuguero area on the Atlantic coast “had been exposed to pesticides from upstream banana plantations”. Sure enough, all the news pieces I saw reported the story uncritically. The Guardian went as far as saying that the study had “established that run-off from banana plantations is harming the caimans that glide stealthily through Costa Rica’s conserved waters.“
The recent publication of a revision of the Musa sections will come as a surprise to those who thought that the Rhodochlamys section had already been merged into the Eumusa section, and renamed Musa, and the Australimusa one into Callimusa. Wikipedia, for one, thought that the merge had taken place in 2002 after a molecular analysis found that Musa species segregated into two groups instead of four. Well, it hadn’t. Not only did it require more than one molecular study to topple the morphology-based classification, any revision of the sections also had to be done by the book, which is what the Finnish botanist Markku Hakkinen did by publishing his revision in Taxon.
Mark Rowe, the son of Phil Rowe, recounts how his father convinced his mother to move to Honduras two months after the 1969 Football War between Honduras and El Salvador. He told her that they would only be there for two years. Little did he know at the time that the job of banana breeder he was about to accept with United Fruit (later known as Chiquita) would define the rest of his life, let alone that people would still be talking about him years after his death.
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