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Raleigh News & Observer: Durham agtech startup strives to save the banana from potential extinction

February 7, 2024

By Brian Gordon

It’s happened before. In the 1950s, the world’s most common commercial banana — the kind found inside most U.S. grocery stores — was a variety called Gros Michel. But then the spread of a fungus named Fusarium began to wipe it out, so growers shifted to a new variety, the Cavendish, which proved resistant to the illness the fungus caused.

Tasty, transportable and growable year-round, Cavendish bananas dominate the global market today. It is now a grocery mainstay, accounting for roughly 99% of global banana exports. Yet this concentration also makes the industry susceptible to an old foe.

A new strain of Fusarium is spreading, and some fear it could cause the Cavendish to go extinct. Fusarium lives in the soil and enters plants through their roots, rotting crops from the inside by constraining their water and nutrients. The condition is known as Fusarium wilt or Panama disease. It is moving faster, researchers have found, across Asia, South America and Africa.

Once the fungus colonizes an area, it can ruin whole swatches of once-fertile land.

The World Banana Forum, a division overseen by the United Nations, has created a task force to address Fusarium wilt. Governments from Taiwan to Belize have gotten involved, too. And in 2021, two of the largest fresh banana producers, Dole and Chiquita, entered a global alliance to help halt the threat.

Joining these international efforts to save the Cavendish is a Research Triangle biotech startup.

“If you think about one food that you could imagine in every country, in every culture of the world, there are not very many that make that list, but sweet bananas are one of them,” said Todd Rands, president and CEO of Elo Life Systems. “And so, it’s such an important part of the staple diets around the world.”

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