One of the most popular fruits on Earth may have its genetic secrets unraveled. Today, an international consortium announced that it hopes to sequence the entire banana genome, perhaps as early as 2006. If successful, the multimillion dollar effort would give a major boost to research on the world's fourth most important food crop, which has been poorly studied. But critics argue that it's premature to sequence the genome.
The Global Musa (Banana) Genomics Consortium says the project would take anywhere between 5 and 10 years, depending on the desired accuracy, and cost up to $7 million a year. Research groups and governments have already set aside $2 million a year that should be sustainable for the length of the project, says geneticist Emile Frisson, who chairs the International Network for the Improvement of the Banana and Plantain and coordinates the sequencing effort. The group is still looking for other sources of funding.
Two dozen research centers will participate in the project, including the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a large scale-sequencing facility in Rockville, Maryland. At a 3-day meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, that ended today, the group selected Musa acuminata calcutta 4, a variety native to southern India, for sequencing.
The banana would be the third plant genome sequenced, after the wild mustard Arabidopsis, completed in 2000, and rice, which a private company announced that it has sequenced, while a public consortium is in the process of doing so. With 500 million to 600 million basepairs, the banana would also be the biggest plant genome cracked yet. Researchers think the genome will facilitate the development of better banana varieties, including strains resistant to Black Sigota, a devastating fungus that reduces worldwide yields by as much as 50%.
But some members of the plant genomics community are skeptical of the project's usefulness. "You can count the number of people working on banana on one hand," says Chris Somerville, a pioneer in Arabidopsis research who works at Stanford University. "The sequence is of limited utility if no one is working on the plant." Banana geneticists acknowledge that their ranks are few, but point to recent accomplishments such as identifying some of the genes responsible for resistance to Black Sigota.