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If you like bananas, we've got some bad news. A fungus that kills the ubiquitous fruit has appeared for the first time in Latin America, which is the source of most bananas sold in the U.S. This disease has caused huge problems in Asia, and there is no cure for it. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This is what Fernando Garcia-Bastidas has been dreading, hoping it wouldn't happen - and then, one day in June, it did.
FERNANDO GARCIA-BASTIDAS: For me, the worst moment was the first pictures, of course.
CHARLES: Some farmers in Colombia, where he grew up, sent him pictures of some of their banana plants. They wanted his opinion because Garcia-Bastidas is an expert on bananas. He works for the company Keygene in the Netherlands. In the photos, the plants were wilting as if they didn't have water. Their leaves were turning yellow. Garcia-Bastidas knew right away these were the symptoms of a fungus called Fusarium.
GARCIA-BASTIDAS: I felt this thing in my heart that it was like kind of praying for a false positive or something like that. It was terrible.
CHARLES: For the next month, he says, he couldn't sleep. He flew to Colombia, tested samples of the wilting plants and confirmed his fears. It was a deadly form of Fusarium fungus called Tropical Race 4, or TR4. TR4 began marching through the world's banana-growing countries in the 1990s - Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Australia, the Philippines. It showed up in Mozambique, in Africa, five years ago. And now, somehow, it's hopped across the ocean to Latin America.
GARCIA-BASTIDAS: It is very difficult to control the spreading of this disease.
CHARLES: If this fungus gets into a plantation, does that mean that the plantation eventually is doomed?
CHARLES: The fungus lives in the soil. No one knows how to eradicate it or protect plants from it. Banana growers just try to keep it from spreading. In Colombia, they're now destroying hundreds of acres of banana plants, anything close to the infected ones. The problem is by the time symptoms show up, the fungus has already been there for a year. And all that time, people may have been walking across the ground, picking up bits of fungus on their shoes.
GARCIA-BASTIDAS: I hope I'm wrong, but most likely it spread already to other places.
CHARLES: The only good news, really, is that it's a slow-moving disaster. In the Philippines, for instance, the fungus has been destroying individual farms for a decade now, but the country is still a major banana producer. And in the meantime, scientists are searching for a new kind of banana that can survive TR4.
Researchers in Australia have created one with genetic engineering, but growing it commercially or selling it will take approval from governments. Others are looking for solutions in nature. When Fernando Garcia-Bastidas was in graduate school, he checked 300 different kinds of bananas to see if they could resist TR4.
GARCIA-BASTIDAS: And, unfortunately, 80% of the material that I tested was susceptible to TR4, but there is a little bit of hope with the other ones that were not susceptible.
CHARLES: These fungus-resistant plants are not about to replace the bananas in supermarkets. Most of them are cooking bananas or plantations or wild bananas with tiny fruit that you can't eat. They're full of seeds. But the hope is scientists can take those plants and improve them - cross-pollinating, reshuffling the genes to create new bananas that are still immune to TR4 but also delicious. Few people have ever tried this. Breeding bananas is very, very hard, but Garcia-Bastidas says it can be done.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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