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Food Matters

Food Matters

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Genetically Engineered Bananas – Audiommunity with Pamela Ronald

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Bananas are delicious. Personally, my favorite consumption methods are in oatmeal or cereal, in smoothies, or just on their own (for the record, I peel them the right way, not from the stem like some savage). But bananas aren't just some tasty delicacy, they're actually a staple crop for millions of people, just behind wheat, rice and corn in terms of importance. Which is why a banana-decimating pathogen has the potential to negatively impact millions of people in East Africa.

So what if you could cross one plant that normally resists the infection with the bananas that these farmers grow? That would be awesome right? Unfortunately, there aren't any banana varieties that are resistant, they all succumb to infection. But luckily, rice plants do have a resistance gene, and we know what it is. And it turns out, if you put that gene into bananas, they are completely resistant to infection by this banana wilt bacterium.

A few months ago, some colleagues and I started Audiommunity, a podcast about the immune system. Our goal for the podcast and for the website we're building around it, is to generate an educational resource for people at all levels of education to learn about the immune system, including current, cutting edge research. For the most recent episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing my co-blogger Pamela Ronald, the scientist who first discovered that rice resistance gene (called Xa 21) over 20 years ago, and is now working on making those awesome GMO bananas that could save millions of lives.

On the left, an infected banana plant. On the right, an infected banana that's expressing a gene from rice.

Here on this blog, we know Pam as a great educator when it comes to issues of crop genetics and sustainable agriculture, but it turns out that she's also an expert on plant immunity. On the podcast, we talk about how she got interested in science, what motivated her to start studying plant immunity, and some of her lab's recent work on genetically engineering banana plants to express the Xa21 resistance gene. Check it out on emmunity.org, or find "Audiommunity" on itunes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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