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Banana genome in five years
By Birgit Hofmann-Reinert

An international consortium of scientists has announced plans to sequence the genome of the banana within five years. After rice and the mustard weed Arabidopsis thaliana, the banana will be the third plant species to be sequenced.

With fewer than 600 million base pairs, the banana genome is relatively small. The consortium will sequence Musa acuminata, a wild species that grows in Southeast Asia. Most cultivated banana varieties are descendents from this plant.

Bananas have been near an evolutionary standstill, say leaders of the project. The over-cultivation of a few popular strains has reduced genetic diversity in the species, making the plant vulnerable to parasitic worms, weevils, and viruses such as the banana streak virus. The virus exists in the banana genome itself and emerges to cause disease during times of stress.

Another threat to bananas is the black Sigatoka fungus, which was discovered in Honduras in the 1980s and is spreading worldwide. Certain wild varieties have genes that confer resistance to the leaf-destroying fungus, and a long-term goal of the sequencing project is to identify these genes.

The 'Global Musa (Banana) Genomics Consortium' includes researchers from government, university, and non-profit research institutes. Consortium members come from Australia, Europe, Africa, North and South America, and the West Indies.

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