(ORDO NEWS) — Over 7,000 years ago, communities in Oceania began to selectively cultivate wild Musa acuminata plants for their rare characteristics.
Over time, the fruits of the plant gradually developed into the sweet, pitted, conveniently packaged banana that many have come to love.
Unfortunately, most of the bananas we consume today are clones of the same variety. Without diverse genetic approaches to disease control, one epidemic would not take long to wipe out the world’s stocks.
A close examination of the genomes of different varieties of bananas and their wild relatives has revealed signs that other relatives of banana plants have contributed to their development.
Scientists have discovered three previously undescribed species or subspecies lurking inside the fruit.
More information about them can give us new ways to protect existing varieties from pests and infectious diseases.
Different varieties of bananas can have two (called diploid), three (triploid), or four (tetraploid) copies of each chromosome, making it difficult to study the evolutionary history of the delicious herbaceous flowering plant.
In the new study, scientists used genetic sequencing techniques to identify the genetic fingerprints of 226 different banana leaf extracts.
By comparing wild and domesticated subspecies, the team was able to compile a detailed “family tree” of the ancestors of modern bananas.
“Here we show that the majority of modern diploid cultivated bananas derived from the wild banana M. acuminata are hybrids between different subspecies,” says genetic resource specialist Julie Sardos of the Alliance Bioversity International and CIAT in France.
“At least three additional wild cryptic ancestors must have contributed to this mixed genome thousands of years ago, but have yet to be identified.”
Researchers believe that there are species or subspecies of bananas that have never been recorded by scientists. This does not mean that none of these types of bananas have survived.
“We are personally convinced that they are still living somewhere in the wild, either poorly described by science or not described at all, in which case they are probably in danger,” Sardos says.
The team also tried to figure out where these mysterious missing varieties might be growing by comparing them to similar banana species we know about and their respective locations around the world.
One probably comes from the area between the Gulf of Thailand and the west of the South China Sea, another is probably located between northern Borneo and the Philippines, and one seems to have come from the island of New Guinea.
Finding these missing ancestors is urgent, the researchers say, as it will allow us to conserve the biodiversity they offer and ultimately allow better quality bananas to grow in the future.
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