The unfortunate sex life of bananas

An interesting article on bananas, and why they are constantly under threat of extinction:

The humble banana almost seems like a miracle of nature. Colourful, nutritious, and much cherished by children, monkeys and clowns, it has a favoured position in the planet’s fruitbowls. The banana is vitally important in many regions of the tropics, where different parts of the plant are used for clothing, paper and tableware, and where the fruit itself is an essential dietary staple. People across the globe appreciate the soft, nourishing flesh, the snack-sized portions, and the easy-peel covering that conveniently changes colour to indicate ripeness. Individual fruit—or fingers—sit comfortably in the human hand, readily detached from their close-packed companions. Indeed, the banana appears almost purpose-designed for efficient human consumption and distribution. It is difficult to conceive of a more fortuitous fruit.

The banana, however, is a freakish and fragile genetic mutant; one that has survived through the centuries due to the sustained application of selective breeding by diligent humans. Indeed, the “miraculous” banana is far from being a no-strings-attached gift from nature. Its cheerful appearance hides a fatal flaw— one that threatens its proud place in the grocery basket. The banana’s problem can be summed up in a single word: sex.

The banana plant is a hybrid, originating from the mismatched pairing of two South Asian wild plant species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Between these two products of nature, the former produces unpalatable fruit flesh, and the latter is far too seedy for enjoyable consumption. Nonetheless, these closely related plants occasionally cross-pollinate and spawn seedlings which grow into sterile, half-breed banana plants. Some ten thousand years ago, early human experimenters noted that some of these hybridized Musa bore unexpectedly tasty, seedless fruit with an unheard-of yellowness and inexplicably amusing shape. They also proved an excellent source of carbohydrates and other important nutrients.

Despite the hybrid’s unfortunate sexual impotence, shrewd would-be agriculturalists realised that the plants could be cultivated from suckering shoots and cuttings taken from the underground stem. The genetically identical progeny produced this way remained sterile, yet the new plant could be widely propagated with human help. An intensive and prolonged process of selective breeding—aided by the variety of hybrids and occasional random genetic mutations—eventually evolved the banana into its present familiar form. Arab traders carried these new wonderfruit to Africa, and Spanish conquistadors relayed them onwards to the Americas. Thus the tasty new banana was spared from an otherwise unavoidable evolutionary dead-end.

Read on here

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