On Friday, May 25, Professor Rony Swennen of the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium gave a lecture at EARTH’s Guácimo campus titled, “Banana and Plantain Research at KU Leuven.”
Professor Swennen serves as head of the Division of Crop Bioethics at KU Leuven. He has dedicated much of his scientific research to advancing agricultural practices in Africa; in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, he began banana plant breeding programs in Nigeria and Uganda as well as running research and development projects in several countries in Africa. He has also worked in Latin America; with Bioversity International (formerly the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain), he helped to found the Biotechnological Research Center of Ecuador.
During his lecture, he discussed the International Musa Germplasm Collection, held at the KU-hosted International Transit Centre in Leuven. The collection holds the germplasm of Musa, the genus that includes bananas and plantains. It houses over 1400 banana types—mostly traditional varieties, but also bred and wild ones. Because domesticated bananas and plantains do not make seeds, and wild varieties’ seeds are difficult to keep, the collection stores shoot tips (meristems) that are preserved in test tubes. The varieties are also cryopreserved at the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-321°F) to help ensure their long-term preservation. The freezing process stops both plant growth and deterioration, which means they can be recovered as live plants at any time in the future. All are tested and indexed for viruses, and the virus-free two thirds of cultivars are freely available to researchers and farmers on every continent.
At a time of rapid loss of biodiversity, such a collection serves the important role of gradually registering and protecting the great variety of banana and plantain crops still available. Professor Swennen and his colleagues are also working to discover and record the genes specific to each variety, to find out which could prove useful in adapting to climate change as well as biofortification for increasing the vitamin and protein in banana cultivars. Nevertheless, Professor Swennen emphasizes, productive sustainable agriculture ideally involves not only working skillfully with available genes but also using good agricultural practices and increasing diversity in production systems such as intercropping, alley crop, companion crops and agroforestry production system.