To further understand our work on the banana crop, we have categorized the research into three main themes. Conservation, Characterization and Evaluation and Genomics and Bioinformatics. Below we discuss each of the three areas, exploring how they further our understanding of bananas, how we can conserve and protect bananas for future generations all the while ensuring that farmers can continue to produce healthy banana varieties.
Conservation - the International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre genebank
The Alliance Musa Germplasm Transit Centre (ITC) is home to the world’s largest collection of banana germplasm.
Its mission? To contribute to the secure long-term conservation of the entire banana genepool and hold the collection in trust for the benefit of future generations under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
The conserved germplasm is distributed under the conditions of the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit Sharing of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The collection, which contains more than 1,600 accessions of edible and wild species of banana, is hosted at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium, and is considered the richest source of banana diversity globally. The accessions are kept in vitro under slow growth conditions at 16°C.
For security, samples are also frozen to -196 °C, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, in a process called cryopreservation. This means that material can be preserved indefinitely and revived into full banana plants as needed.
In addition, this frozen collection is safety duplicated at the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) in Montpellier, France.
Germplasm that has been indexed as virus negative is freely available for international distribution upon request from the MGIS website. The material is accompanied by a health statement, phytosanitary certificate and a copy of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement.
Between 1985 and 2019 the ITC distributed over 18,000 samples of accessions to users in 113 countries. On average, 62% of the samples go to National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in the main banana growing regions – Africa, the Americas and Asia and Pacific, with the remainder (38%) going to universities and research centres in Europe.
Characterization and Evaluation
The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT works with partners to evaluate the ITC material for important traits, such as resistance to biotic stresses and nutrient content and resilience to grow under the challenges of current and future climate. Examples of this work include screening the accessions for vitamin A content, resistance to drought and Fusarium wilt.
Banana (Musa spp.) ranks among the top 15 cultivated crops. Of the worldwide banana production, 85% is for home consumption and this production usually is rain fed. Optimal banana production however requires continuous and abundant water, while many agro-eco zones have a dry season. With climate change it is predicted that dry seasons will shift, be difficult to predict and tend to be more extreme. Improving banana performance for current and future climatic conditions is therefore a priority. An important current focus lays on the African Great Lakes region, which is one of the poorest areas in the world, encompassing Burundi, north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), western Kenya, Rwanda, north-western Tanzania, and Uganda. The region is also one of the most important banana-growing areas in the world and is home to a unique group of banana varieties adapted to this distinctive environment.
Researchers want to be able to advise African farmers about which types of bananas would be best suited for their region. The banana characterization and evaluation team evaluates different gene bank accessions with an overarching aim to model the impact of abiotic stresses on their growth and development. The overall output is a genotype specific growth model that predicts the impact of temperature and water deficit on their growth and development in a certain region.
We have developed several tools to screen the banana germplasm in high throughput, to model the environment and perform validation studies in the field (Eyland et al 2021 (Plant Physiology), Eyland et al 2021 (Crop Science), Geldhof et al 2021 (Plant Physiology), Eyland et al 2022 (Plant Cell & Environment), Manners et al 2021 (Agricultural systems)).
Another aspect is filling the gaps in the genebank with a special focus on crop wild relatives for pre-breeding and conservation purposes. For the first time the diversity of the wild banana species has been explored and the potential for future breeding climate smart programs has been mapped Eyland et al 2021 (Crop Science) Eyland et al 2022 (Plant Cell & Environment).
The next steps are to map the natural diversity of different populations in relation with the environmental pressure and in view of climate change. This is not only crucial for the in-situ conservation of bananas, but also to be able to select the right individuals from a population for breeding. A dialog with breeders needs to be set up to assist them with the selection of the parents and to perform the genetic characterization and high throughput evaluation of the F1 offspring.
Learn more about the collection mission for finding diversity in Musa banksii populations.
Watch to learn more about greenhouse screening
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Genomics and Bioinformatics
With the revolution of sequencing technologies, genomics provides a powerful toolkit for understanding banana genomes, and harnessing untapped genetic diversity conserved in genebanks. This knowledge empowers researchers, breeders, and farmers to better conserve and use bananas, and develop more resilient, and sustainable hybrids.
Today, the available genetic information on material conserved in genebanks is insufficient. Progress in genomics technologies and bioinformatics plays a significant role in discovering useful genetic diversity. Genebanks need to embrace the genomics era by developing new strategies and tools to: assess the genetic diversity represented in their collections; identify traits related to nutritional quality and resistance to pests, diseases and drought; support breeding activities.