Banana scientists gather in Brazil for the fourth ISHS-ProMusa symposium

Inge Van den Bergh Wednesday, 02 November 2011
Photo I. Van den Bergh, Bioversity

The first ISHS-ProMusa symposium ended with Richard Markham, then chair of the ISHS Section on Banana and Plantain, reminding participants “of our limited success over the past 20 years in providing workable solutions to the major crop protection problems of farmers”. We all know what these are: leaf spot diseases, Fusarium wilt, bacterial wilts, viruses, nematodes and weevils. This fourth symposium, hosted by Embrapa, similarly provided sobering accounts of the challenges scientists still face in addressing these problems. And rightly so. We should not underestimate the scale of the task at hand. But symposia also play a non-negligible role in lifting our spirits by reminding us that the steady progress of science is also punctuated by the occasional leap.

After years of being told about the limits of conventional breeding, it was refreshing to hear that evolutionary-inspired strategies were overcoming the legendary low fertility of bananas. The symposium was also the occasion for celebrating, not only the forthcoming release of the first reference genome sequence of banana, but also the choice of DH Pahang, when it was announced that the Musa acuminata ssp. malaccensis accession used to generate DH Pahang is resistant to Tropical Race 4 of Fusarium wilt. Meanwhile, the results obtained with plants genetically modified to express genes that inhibit programmed cell death suggest that it may one day be possible to make any banana cultivar resistant to any Fusarium wilt race.

As heartening as they are, these scientific advances, along with others that will be in the proceedings of the symposium, are not the whole story. Interactions between scientists and other players along the banana chain are critical in making the banana sector as a whole more sustainable, from an environmental, economic and social perspective. The opening and closing keynotes also emphasized the importance of inter-institutional collaborations and knowledge-sharing to make the most of research efforts and ensure that they have an impact on farmers. These appeals to our better nature set the scene for the workshops that followed the scientific presentations. Aptly enough, the first workshop was on the development of a trustworthy knowledge resource on bananas on the ProMusa website. The trustworthiness will come from experts providing and reviewing contents. We are lucky in the ProMusa community to have a lot of expertise 'in-house'. In the other two workshops, the participants were invited to brainstorm on how to model the impact of climate change on the crop’s pests and diseases, and on how to ensure that the data and knowledge generated by geneticists and genomic scientists meet the needs of breeders. Expect to hear more about these initiatives in the coming years.

The field trip is also one of the high points of any symposium. This year the participants were offered the choice of two destinations. One was Sitio Barreiras, to visit a farming system that enables the traceability of the entire production process from the practices used to grow the bananas to the technology deployed to put the fruits on supermarket shelves in less than 24 hours after harvest. I joined the group that went to the Embrapa research station at Cruz das Almas. We were given a tour of the facilities where had been bred the hybrids that participants had been tasting throughout the week – a selection of which will be shared with the International Transit Centre for global evaluation as was announced by Embrapa during the symposium – as well as the strikingly beautiful ornamental bananas that decorated the symposium venue.

Of course, beyond the scientific programme, what brings people to symposia is also the prospect of exchanging with colleagues in their free time. Throw in the socializing and sampling of local sights and delicacies, and you have all the ingredients for another memorable symposium!

I take this opportunity to announce that the next ISHS-ProMusa symposium will take place in 2014 as part of the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane. I look forward to seeing you all there!

ProMusa coordinator
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Click on the photos to start the slide shows
Symposium speakers
Workshops, exhibit, field trip
Symposium social events