Weird Wednesdays: Yes, we have no genetically-diverse bananas

 Bananas were once these greenish-pulpy things with large seeds embedded within their sweet flesh. (greeny_meanie/Flickr Creative Commons)

Bananas were once these greenish-pulpy things with large seeds embedded within their sweet flesh. (greeny_meanie/Flickr Creative Commons)

Ah, the banana, the most versatile of fruit. Wrapped in its own biodegradable package and filled with energy and nutrients, this breakfast powerhouse is the fifth-highest consumed food item in the U.S. (behind hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza and Oreos, of course.)

A few fun facts: Bananas emit a tiny amount of radiation, which is used to measure radiation levels in BEDs (Banana Equivalent Dose.) 20 million bananas have enough radiation to kill you.

Their scientific name, Musa sapientum, means “fruit of the clever man.” Humans share a sizable chunk of their genome with bananas.

The last one is just as well, because all bananas are actually clones. That’s right: every banana you’ve eaten is the genetic equivalent of the prequel Star Wars Stormtroopers. And that isn’t actually a good thing.

A bit of history.

Bananas were once these greenish-pulpy things with large seeds embedded within their sweet flesh. Domesticated by South Asiatic and New Guinean natives, the fruit found its way to Europe and the Middle East in around CE 300.

The fruit made its landfall in the states with English traders in the 1800s, where it was grown on the colonized Caribbean isles. By the late 1800s the fruit had been bred into the curvy, fleshy variety we know and love today, and it grew in popularity for both eating and sugar production (The average banana contains about three and a half teaspoons of the sweet stuff.) Cultivation spread to South America, particularly Honduras and Guatemala.

The variety grown at this time was known as the Gros Michel (‘Fat Michael’) and has a bolder, more ‘banana’ taste to it, due to the fact that it contains higher levels of the compound Isoamyl Acetate, which gives bananas and pears their distinctive fruity flavors.

It’s also the ‘artificial’ banana flavor you taste when you eat banana-flavored sweets such Runts or Banana Laffy Taffy. Though it’s a myth that the flavor is specifically based on the Gros Michel variety, its copious amounts of isoamyl make the fruit taste like an unsweetened Dum Dum.

Back to the history. By the 1900s, the scattered banana plantations of yore had clumped together into a massive vertical monopoly, a behemoth of cultivation and harvesting and distribution known as the Chiquita Banana Foundation. The human rights violations, brutal business practices and the land-wars started by this banana republic (which is where the term sprouted from) are perhaps better delved into by a political science major, so I’ll stick to the genomics.

Chiquita grew its bananas in the same way it grew as a company: homogeneously. In an effort to rid the fruit of the hard seeds embedded in the flesh, the growers bred the seeds out of the banana.

Now, conventional wisdom tells us that you need seeds to grow, well, any kind of plant. Conventional wisdom flies out the window in the face of science! (And ferns, but that’s another column.) In this case, banana trees were reproduced through cuttings, as horticulturalists clipped off sprouting stems and branches from mature plants, cultivated the roots and planted them in the ground.

Each tree was a genetic twin (or perhaps milltuplet) to each other, and each fruit was equal. A banana you bought in Des Moines was the same as a banana in Alberta or Orlando or Sacramento, with the same American constance of a Holiday Inn free continental breakfast.

Chiquita grew. Vast swathes of genetically identical banana trees formed monocrop systems, which aren’t found in the wild, made them ripe not for the picking, but for the infecting.

In the 1950s, Panama disease, a wilting, wasting malady caused by the soil bacteria Fusarium swept its way through the Central America banana plantations. The unresistant Gros Michel all but succumbed, as the closely-packed monocrop fields served as a tinderpile to the flames of sickness. By the Chiquita and other growers switched to the Fusarium-immune Giant Cavendish variety, the Gros Michel was all but extinct for mass production.

While the modern-day Giant Cavendish, which is meatier, blander and bigger than the Gros Michel, is immune to Panama disease, it too is genetically diverse as a Sontaran cohort (which is to say: not at all.) All it’s gonna take is another disease to wipe out the species, and, after that, there might not be a replacement.

Enjoy your banana cream pie while you can, folks. And, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.