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Scientists try to save bananas from climate change

Exotic red bananas (Sebastien Carpentier)
Exotic red bananas found only in PNG (Sebastien Carpentier)

| Australian Broadcasting Corporation

DARWIN - Scientists are racing to find and save the living ancestors of modern-day, cultivated bananas that grow in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea.

These wild bananas have genes capable of protecting one of the world's most popular fruits from climate change, pests and diseases.

However, deforestation and fires are destroying tropical forests across the South Pacific, and scientists say there is a risk of losing both the ancestors and the possible future of commercial bananas.

Bananas are second only to tomatoes in popularity as a fruit, with the global industry worth more than $US31 billion last year.

The Australian Banana Growers Council says the industry is worth $1.3 billion a year to the national economy.

Belgium-based scientist Sebastien Carpentier led an expedition to Papua New Guinea last year to collect and conserve the genetics of these wild bananas.

"Papua New Guinea contains very unique species that only occur on the island of Papua, and it is one of the main ancestors of the commercial bananas we have now," he said.

Dr Carpentier is the team leader of banana characterisation and evaluation with the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

His job is to save these unique bananas before they disappear from the natural world.

"We see that a lot of forests are disappearing," Dr Carpentier said.

"Times start to change when people start doing commercial agriculture or mining and start destroying whole areas of forest, then, of course, the species cannot survive and will disappear."

Dr Carpentier said the most recent expedition uncovered some unusual varieties, such as endangered plants that grow 15 metres tall and bear fruit with hard seeds, instead of the typical soft, yellow flesh of commercial bananas.

Genetic diversity is key to protecting cultivated varieties, such as cavendish and ladyfinger, from the adverse effects of climate change and pests and diseases, according to Dr Carpentier.

For example, the variety Musa balbisiana has superior water use efficiency and was found persevering in open land recovering from fires, so its genetics could help breeders adapt bananas to resist future droughts.

"The reason why we have nice, delicious bananas is because farmers protect them — they would be quite vulnerable if you left them," Dr Carpentier said.

"[Wild bananas] contain unique genes, since they are exposed to the natural threats of the environment and only the fittest survives."

Dr Carpentier said one of the greatest threats to worldwide banana production, the Panama disease, has devastated industries in some countries.

"If forests disappear and you cannot go back to individual plants that contain unique traits, in the long term you might lose the crop, because the bananas we have now are very vulnerable," he said.

The specimens collected from the wild are stored in the world's largest banana gene bank in Leuven, Belgium.


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Ian Howie-Willis

The PNG Biological Foundation's original collection of banana specimens was established in the period 1969-1973 on about three acres of vacant land on the Unitech campus in Lae.

The chap responsible was the late Dr George Argent (1941-2019), a botanist from England who had recently been awarded his PhD at the University of Wales, Bangor.

I was a personal friend of George.

George's task was to collect and study the genetic diversity of bananas in Papua New Guinea. This involved much travel and specimen collection in many regions of PNG.

He then propagated the hundreds of specimens he'd collected in the 'living banana herbarium' he developed on the Unitech site.

This was later moved to Laloki near Port Moresby.

After leaving PNG, Dr Argent joined the staff of the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Gardens as a tropical plants expert. He continued travelling widely in tropical countries and became a world authority on rhododendrons.

Graham King

Hi Robin - It is great to know that Janet has continued the work that was started so long ago. One day some of that genetic material will end up in all the bananas we eat. Cheers.

Robin Hide

A quick footnote to Graham King’s note re....

“In a study of banana production in the Amele are of Madang we found that the people could name over 50 different types of banana growing in their food gardens including diploid, triploid and tetraploid bananas. Interestingly their naming system used a prefix specific to each ploidy type demonstrating that they were themselves excellent botanists.”

That study was published as:

King, G.A., Banag, J., Kambuou, R.N., Ovia, K., Ovia, A., Heywood, P.F., and Hide, R.L. 1989. Production of Bananas by the Amele in Madang Province and in the Vanapa River and Kabadi Areas of Central Province Papua New Guinea. Research Bulletin No. 44. Port Moresby, Department of Agriculture and Livestock, 92 p.

The dedicated fieldworker who collected all the detailed research on bananas in rural Madang and Central Provinces was the then young agriculturalist, Janet Banag.

Janet, later Janet Paofa, moved to the Laloki Research Centre where she worked with the late Rosa Kambuou In recent years Janet has been (and continues to be ) the plant curator of the major collections of banana (and other crops) there.

She summarised their important work last year in an article in the National (11 April 2019): “The importance of plant genetic resources”.

Over the years Janet has played a major role in many international banana collecting trips to most PNG provinces, see for example....

Bernard Corden

I can recall after food rationing was lifted following World War II my father came home from the local shipyard with a bunch of bananas and we did not know which part to eat.

Graham King

The PNG Biological Foundation funded a major collection of bananas in the early 1970s.

The collection was initially held at Unitech but was transferred to the Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station in 1981.

The original collection included banana varieties from many parts of PNG including wild species of Musa. PNG is quite unique in that diploid bananas are quite commonly cultivated for food.

It was found that many of the diploids in the collection had fertile pollen. Banana researchers from South America and Australia have taken this material for inclusion in breeding programs since the 1980s.

The Giant Cavendish variety that dominates world banana trade is a triploid (3 sets of chromosomes) formed when a diploid crosses with a tetraploid. Triploids are of course infertile and do not have seeds.

It was hoped that suitable new varieties could be bred with resistance to the most serious banana pathogens such as Fusarium and Panama.

Bananas continue to be an important food in PNG. In a study of banana production in the Amele are of Madang we found that the people could name over 50 different types of banana growing in their food gardens including diploid, triploid and tetraploid bananas.

Interestingly their naming system used a prefix specific to each ploidy type demonstrating that they were themselves excellent botanists.

Lindsay F Bond

On the topic of "going and finding" comes a news report worth seeing and telling of a discovery made by primary school children.


This is mentioned here in expectation that people (and children) of PNG have good prospects of notable discoveries. PNG Attitude brings also earnest encouragement in writing.

Arthur Williams

At my home in Taskul, Lavongai Island, I grew what the islanders called the Buka banana. It was the tallest variety I saw in PNG.

It grew to at least 8-10 metres and produced a huge amount of fruit. When I harvested it in 2007 I needed the help of a strong relative to stop it crashing to the ground by supporting it for as long as we could to prevent it crushing the ripe fruit.

What amazed me was how the very fast the regrowth sprouted out of the remining trunk of the plant. I could see it growing by several inches a day.

Being an expat I thought there was only one banana species. Was amazed by the diversity growing in PNG.

I grew to enjoy eating the boiled variety with coconut cream, which I had first thought were immature or diseased bananas as they only had a few fruit and looked very scrawny.

My last job before leaving my old planation area, sadly for ever, was to plant 30 new banana suckers on the hillside overlooking our home.

Back in Wales someone asked me, "Do you like gardening?" I replied, "Well I nearly always planted to eat", and told the enquirer of my banana plot. Didn't mention the 20 pineapples though; nor the peanuts.

One close relative was amazed to know that peanuts grew in the ground not on trees. She was far too young to recall the UK government's failed groundnut schemes of the 1950s

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