The Banana Blight

Hey, remember when that botanical pandemic wiped out all the world’s bananas back in the 1950s? Neither do I, but apparently it happened.

Without any of us realizing it, the world’s banana crops were killed off by a fungus known as Panama Disease. Killed like the dodo birds. Utterly extinct.


So how are we still eating them?

Get ready for this: cloning.

There are in fact many varieties of bananas still in existence, but most types are only about as big as your finger and full of seeds that would break your teeth. The kind that most of the world was eating until the late 50s was the Gros Michel; that’s the one that was wiped out. The Cavendish strain is the one that survived the blight, and that’s the variety that 95% of the banana-eating world is munching on.

And if you’ve ever wondered why bananas don’t have seeds, it’s this: every single Cavendish plant is a clone. The growers take a cutting of an older banana root and replant it. This explains why every banana tastes alike – they are genetic twins.

All of this is pretty cool until … da-da-da … the arrival of the next deadly fungus, a new strain of Panama Disease that seems intent on wiping out the Cavendish. Since these plants are cloned instead of reproducing, there is absolutely no chance that they’ll adapt in time to evade the disease.

Enter the gene splitters. The best hope for keeping bananas around is to modify them by cross-breeding them with a heartier fruit, or even fish.

Yes, fish. Lord knows why this seems like a good idea to anyone. As much as I don’t want to lose my favorite fruit, I will go on record right here and now that I will never, ever, ever put a fish-banana on my ice cream sundae.

Some really boring reading, if you’re interested:

Photo credit Giorgio Trovato on

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