During the summer of 1989, Randy Ploetz was in his laboratory just south of Miami, when he received a package from Taiwan. Ploetz, who had earned his doctorate in plant pathology five years earlier, was collecting banana diseases and regularly received mysterious packages containing pathogens pulled out of the soil from far-flung plantations.
It was Tropical Race 4 (TR4) – a strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum cubense that lives in the soil, is impervious to pesticides, and kills banana plants by choking them of water and nutrients.
TR4 only affects a particular type of banana called the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 banana varieties in the world, but the Cavendish, named after a British nobleman who grew the exotic fruit in his greenhouses on the edge of the Peak District, makes up almost the entire export market.
Faced with a crisis that could see the Cavendish gone forever, a handful of researchers are racing to use gene-editing to create a better banana and bring the world’s first TR4-resistant Cavendish to the market.
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