The next time you stop by your local supermarket, take a long, hard look at the yellow bananas in the produce section. That’s because bananas might be extinct within just a few years, say Dutch researchers, and that could open the door for synthetic biologists to come up with a new, synthetically modified banana to replace the yellow Cavendish banana we’ve come to know and love.
This new, synthetically modified banana would look like a real banana and taste like a real banana and it would have almost exactly the same DNA as a real banana — except that it would be engineered in a bio-foundry by a team of technologists. This genetically engineered banana would have some of its genetic material designed or edited to behave differently than it does now.
But let’s back up for a second. Why on earth would anyone actually want to create such a Frankenbanana? It all goes back to the research findings published by the group of scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who claim that an aggressive fungus known as “Panama Disease” is at risk of wiping out the Cavendish banana – the world’s most popular banana – within a few years.
This wouldn’t be the first time Panama Disease struck – in the 1960s, it drove another type of banana – the Gros Michel – to near-extinction. What’s concerning is that a new strain of Panama Disease has now appeared, for which bananas have no real defense. Moreover, the new strain appears to be resistant to current fungicides. Oh, and Cavendish bananas account for 99 percent of all bananas in the world, so this is a big problem.
Right now, the fungus is found primarily in Asia (and also parts of Africa, the Middle East and Australia), but once it hits Latin America, watch out. That’s because 80 percent of all Cavendish bananas are cultivated in Latin America – in the so-called banana republics. If these bananas are unable to resist the new fungus, that’s when the Cavendish banana could be headed for extinction.
“Until new, commercially viable, and resistant banana cultivars reach markets,” the Dutch researchers write, “Any potential disease management option needs to be scrutinized, thereby lengthening the commercial lifespan of contemporary banana accessions.”
In other words, banana lovers worldwide are in deep trouble unless we figure out a way to make bananas somehow resistant to Panama Disease.
Which is where synthetic biology could ride to the rescue. In this case, the DNA of the Cavendish banana could be genetically engineered to resist the Panama Disease that the Dutch researchers isolated as the source of a potential banana extinction. The fungus attacks the banana by destroying the banana plant’s water-transporting mechanism, causing it to wilt rapidly and die of dehydration. So any edits to the banana DNA would need to figure out a way to rehydrate the banana — or prevent the fungus from striking in the first place.
Of course, the idea of a genetically engineered banana is just conjecture. There is no synthetic banana currently available on the marketplace (although researchers have found a way to create bacteria that smells like bananas – yum!).
However, there are a growing number of genetically-engineered foods that are being created. Would you believe meat that’s made in a laboratory? Or eggs that have been derived from plants, not chickens? Or how about milk that’s made from genetically-engineered yeast? Some synthetic biology innovators even talk about a “post-animal bio-economy,” in which we don’t even need animals to produce certain dairy or protein products. The company producing milk from bacteria is called Muufri. Pronounce the name the right way, and you get what the big idea is – “moo-free” milk. Milk without cows, mind blown.
Thanks to current gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR, it’s possible to create apples that don’t turn brown after you slice them and potatoes that don’t bruise. Recently, the FDA recently approved genetically-engineered salmon that’s able to grow faster than regular salmon, marking the arrival of the first-ever genetically-engineered food product that has been approved for human consumption within the United States.
Which brings us to the real problem faced by synthetic biology innovators — if they are ever going to create a new type of banana, they are going to need to overcome the public’s aversion to genetically modified foodstuffs. A “genetically-engineered banana” sounds suspiciously like a “genetically-modified banana,” and that might be a no-fly-zone for banana innovators hoping to glide under the radar of regulators.
But there are other options. There’s currently momentum building around new microbial solutions that can be applied to crops such as corn and soy, as well as on fruits and vegetables, to help defend them against pests, diseases and weeds. In November, Syngenta and DSM announced a new plan for bacteria-based crop care, while agricultural giant Monsanto is a founding member of the new BioAg Alliance to create new “microbials” to protect crops from weeds, fungal diseases and insect pests.
In this scenario — think of it as the Synthetic Banana Lite scenario since no actual bananas would be harmed – a genetically engineered pesticide made from bacteria would be applied to Latin America’s bananas, keeping them safe from the pernicious Panama Disease. Synthetic biology would play a role in keeping the banana safe from extinction, but in an indirect way.
The bigger picture is that something very innovative is happening with the global food supply, thanks to advances in synthetic biology. We’re starting to think of food as a technological platform, in which food products are engineered according to very specific needs, using a number of off-the-shelf products (microbes, bacteria and yeast!) or new gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR.
That’s blurring the line between plants, animals and bacteria, and potentially raising some very difficult philosophical questions about what food is and how we make it. The great banana extinction – if it really happens – could provide an impetus to speed up many of the synthetic biology techniques just now in their infancy.