Article originally published by: NC BioTech
“Yes! We Have No Bananas” was a chart-topping song hummed and sung across America after it was first recorded in 1923.
But what if there really were no bananas?
It could happen. Maybe we’ll sing the blues version in 2023.
Fusarium wilt – also called Panama disease – was discovered in Colombia last year. It will likely spread throughout the rest of Latin America, jeopardizing the Cavendish banana we’re accustomed to buying at our local grocery stores.
Fusarium wilt is caused by the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of Fusarium fungus. It’s an effective plant killer that now threatens the region that supplies almost all the bananas sold commercially in the U.S. and Europe.
The same disease has decimated banana plantations in Southeast Asia for three decades. It lives in the soil and attacks plants through their roots, starving them of the nutrients they need to survive.
Now the good news. Research Triangle Park-based food and agriculture company Elo Life Systems is working with the Dole Food Company to keep the banana coming to grocery stores around the country. The two businesses just announced a five-year strategic partnership to develop Fusarium-resistant banana varieties, including the Cavendish.
Dole is one of the world’s top three suppliers of bananas, along with Chiquita and Del Monte. They all rely on the Cavendish to stock produce shelves from North Carolina to California and beyond. Without serious intervention, Fusarium could stop the supply chain in its tracks.
The race to defeat the banana pandemic
“The spread of Fusarium wilt would be devastating to the $25 billion banana industry. And it would significantly impact growers whose livelihoods depend on exports of the Cavendish banana,” said Fayaz Khazi, Ph.D., Elo’s CEO.
It’s also an environmental threat because farmers are abandoning Fusarium-contaminated fields and clearing new ground to plant bananas, often spreading fungus-laden soil from one location to the next. “This collaboration with Dole is an important part of our strategy to improve the security and sustainability of the global food supply,” Khazi noted.
Patricio Gutiérrez, Dole’s director of Innovation R&D, added that “bananas are not only the most popular fruit in the United States but, together with plantains, are a staple food on which much of the world depends for sustenance. Our investment…reflects our aspiration to improve a critically important food crop, while helping farmers meet the continuous challenges to produce this food for the planet.”
If you question the possible demise of the Cavendish banana, you shouldn’t. Until the 1950s, the most commonly exported banana variety was the Gros Michel. It was sweeter and had a thicker skin that made it easier to ship without bruising. The Gros Michel was almost wiped out by a different strain of the Fusarium fungus.
The Cavendish, which was resistant to the earlier type of Fusarium, took its place. Now that variety, grown almost entirely in Central and South America, is at risk. It makes up about 99% of the banana export market.
Khazi said Elo wants to find a long-term, sustainable solution that will save the fruit. “It’s critically important to develop Fusarium-resistant varieties by leveraging the natural resistance to TR4 in several relatives of Cavendish,” he explained. Elo hopes to have the research in place to achieve that goal within the next three years.
Traditional plant breeding is a painstaking process that can take a couple of decades. Since commercial bananas don’t produce seeds, the process is far more complex and time consuming than with other crops. “Time is of the essence,” Khazi said. “Our technology platform allows us to rapidly take advantage of the resistance that already exists in nature and quickly bring that into commercial banana varieties.”
The first challenge is to identify the problem and see how nature is dealing with it. Comparative genomics and computational biology allow Elo to look at the biologic makeup of an assortment of banana varieties. And it can match DNA sequences to find the variations that make the Cavendish more susceptible to the soil-borne fungus.
The next step is to improve the genetics of the banana through precision biotechnology. Elo uses its proprietary gene editing technology – a homing endonuclease-based platform found naturally in primitive plants and algae – to precisely cut out faulty DNA or insert new genetic material.
This process produces an identical outcome to traditional breeding – a plant that is resistant to the Fusarium fungus. But it’s much faster.
Under the terms of its agreement with Dole, Elo will research and develop multiple ways to tackle Fusarium wilt resistance. That includes making the Cavendish less likely to attract the fungus, as well as developing other resistant varieties of bananas.
Dole will fund the R&D and be responsible for field evaluation and commercialization. It will pay Elo royalties on the commercialized plant products.
The companies will have to overcome the reluctance of some consumers and regulators – primarily in Europe – to accept gene-edited food, even though gene editing is not traditional GMO technology. It simply speeds up what plant breeders have done for generations – finding the right combination of DNA sequences to allow desired traits to flourish while undesirable traits diminish.
“We are a company that accelerates plant breeding,” Khazi explained. “Traditional breeding takes a lot of time and effort. With our technology, which includes our ARCUS genome-editing platform, we can compress crop improvement into a short timeframe. We use our knowledge and science to do what nature does, but much faster.”
Improving human wellness through food
The partnership with Dole is just Elo’s latest foray into improving food. The company has been steadily working on a variety of other projects that run the gamut from cutting saturated fat in canola to increasing the amount of sclareol in clary sage.
Two years ago, the company announced an ongoing strategic partnership with global food conglomerate Cargill to reduce the saturated fat in canola oil. The product is preferred by fast-food restaurants and large food and ingredient companies.
The goal is to reduce saturated fat levels from 8% to less than 2.5% by editing the genome of canola plants. Elo hopes lower saturate levels in the frying oil will, over the long term, improve cardiovascular health.
Elo also has launched a subsidiary in Brisbane, Australia, to help farmers make their crops more resilient to climate change. The current focus is on using gene-editing technology to create drought-tolerant and disease-resistant chickpeas with improved levels of beneficial proteins.
This is particularly important in Australia, where a five-year drought has caused many farmers to stop growing the crop. Plant-based proteins like chickpeas are essential to the world’s food and nutritional security.
Natural zero-calorie sweeteners is another focus area. Elo is looking for reliable alternatives to those calorie-rich sweeteners that can increase obesity and metabolic disorders. The company is working with partners in the food and beverage industry to develop a watermelon-based product – branded as ZeroMelon – that might revolutionize the sweetener market.
On a more local front, Elo is collaborating with Avoca to improve the sclareol content of clary sage plants. Avoca is a subsidiary of specialty chemicals company Ashland. Its Merry Hill location in eastern North Carolina is one of the few places in the country where clary sage is grown.
Sclareol is a binding agent used in all kinds of fragrances, from luxury perfumes to everyday detergents, to make their scents last longer. It’s used as a sustainable substitute for a waxy substance called ambergris that is secreted by a small percentage of sperm whales.
Elo also has close working relationships with North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Its parent company Precision BioSciences – which focuses on human therapeutics – was a Duke University spin-off.
Looking to the future
Khazi said Elo has made steady progress by directing its food-based technology at complex challenges in food and agriculture. He expects the company to be equally as productive over the next few years, with a slightly different focus.
“We’re evolving as a solutions company, rather than targeting a single technology,” he said. “Elo already is known as a product-ready genome editing company. With our suite of technologies, we are even better positioned to solve problems and explore opportunities in the food sector.”
The company’s 21 employees specialize in four areas:
- data science;
- technology development, including genome editing and molecular biology;
- translational agriculture – working with client companies on new products and product profiles; and
- controlled environmental agriculture –validating product concepts through plants grown in greenhouses or growth chambers.
“We have a tremendously diverse, talented, and well-trained team,” Khazi pointed out. “Elo’s success is a direct result of their resilience and hard work.” He said most of the company’s employees have advanced degrees. Many were hired from the Research Triangle area.
“We view our role as connecting the dots between what we eat and how we live,” he explained. “As people live longer, we also need to focus on living healthier.
“Average consumers know what’s good for them. But is the food sector ready? There will be a need for a technology company like ours to cater to this unmet need – to improve not only the quantity, but also the quality of the food supply. That’s where Elo fits into the equation.”