Bananas are an atheist’s nightmare? (#GMOMonday)

Some years ago, walking on a college campus, I had a small pamphlet shoved into my hand. It advertised itself as the “atheist test” and featured a banana on the cover. As my parents and many years of schooling can attest, I am not one to pass up an exam. I opened it up and started reading.

Inside, I found an argument for the existence of God based on a banana. It described the banana as an “atheist’s nightmare” and questioned how a fruit that was tasty, came in a convenient wrapper and is shaped for the human hand could have come from anywhere other than God.

But as it turns out, wild bananas aren’t anything like the “atheist’s nightmare” that the pamphlet touted. They are small and oval-shaped (not long and perfectly curved towards the mouth as the pamphlet argued). If you could crack open the thick leathery casing, you would be met with a small nugget of pulpy flesh that is riddled with seeds.

Not exactly what I would call a perfect fruit.

As many people pointed out, this particular argument had a serious flaw — the modern banana is the product of thousands of years of artificial selection, hybridization and cross breeding. Like all of the crops we enjoy, bananas have been utterly transformed from their wild relatives by humans.

 Now it appears that genetic improvements may be the next step for bananas.

Recently, bananas in Africa have been devastated by a bacterial disease. Known as the “Xanthomonas wilt,” this bacterium quickly decimates crops, causing fruit to rot and ooze while still on the stalk and causing the plant to wither and die as well.

Seeking to alleviate the effects of the disease and give bananas a defense against the wilt, genetic engineers transferred a gene from a sweet pepper that conferred resistance. The fortressed banana held so much promise to alleviate crop losses in Uganda that the country temporarily lifted its ban on genetically modified crops. The banana wilt had caused $500 million in damage annually to banana growers there.

Bananas are a major food and cash crop in Africa. In Uganda, it is estimated that “a typical adult will eat about three times his body weight [in bananas] in a year.” And it is estimated that in that region of Africa, 30% to 60% of daily calories come from bananas.

Researchers at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Uganda are also testing out a genetically modified banana that has the potential to combat malnutrition. Similar to golden rice, researchers have planted test crops of a “golden banana.” As this banana produces its own beta carotene (which the body uses to convert to vitamin A), researchers hope the banana will help Ugandans combat blindness and malnutrition.

This is just one of countless ways that scientists are using our understanding of genetics to make all kinds of similar improvements to our food.  Today is “Genetically Modified Monday” (#GMOMonday), the day of the week I am setting aside to think about and talk about some exciting and intriguing new genetically modified plants and animals. You can chime into the discussion by tweeting, using the hashtag #GMOMonday (“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism”). What are some of the improved foods you are thinking about or enjoying today?

Image: “Banana Extract” by JD Hancock via used under CC BY-SA 3.0 / Cropped from original