This Startup Wants to Save the Banana by Editing its Genes
Originally published on Fast Company
In a lab at a U.K. research park, researchers from a startup called Tropic Biosciences are using CRISPR to create a better banana. The startup, which is also using gene editing to improve coffee, believes that technology could help save the fruit. Today, the company announced that it raised $10 million to commercialize its varieties of both coffee and bananas.
Both coffee and bananas are an important part of the food market–bananas are a staple food in some areas and the bestselling fruit in the world after tomatoes, and coffee is the most-consumed drink after water. Both are a major source of jobs; around 25 million people globally grow coffee. “If you look at the impacts on livelihoods, then it really is a very critical crop for some of the poorest people globally,” says Gilad Gershon, CEO of Tropic Biosciences. Both crops also face serious challenges.
Bananas are at risk from disease. The Cavendish banana, the variety now common in grocery stores after a fungus decimated a tastier variety, is now at risk from a new strain of the fungus that can quickly spread and kill plants. Another lethal bacterial infection, which is spreading in East Africa, causes bananas to rot. Because bananas are created by cloning other trees–a field of banana trees is basically identical genetically–if one tree is susceptible, the rest will be too.
“That creates a lot of exposure for the industry because a disease that kills one banana can wipe out the entire industry,” says Gershon. “A beetle that attacks one banana tree can attack all of them.”
Because the plants are cloned rather than bred, there’s no variation. “What you have is pretty much what you’re stuck with,” he says. “Because traditional breeding is not an option, gene editing makes a lot of sense, because the only way you can change the banana now is through genetics. If we don’t [take] this type of role and save the banana, I’m not sure there’s any other way to do it.” If bananas are more disease resistant, the industry can reduce its use of agrochemicals; right now, Gershon says, the industry spends roughly a quarter of production costs on fungicide.
The team is also working on editing bananas to help the very perishable fruit survive longer as it’s delivered to consumers. “Using gene editing in a non-GMO way, you can extend the shelf life of bananas,” says Gershon. “And by extending the shelf life you can significantly reduce waste.” CRISPR allows them to precisely edit DNA by, for example, snipping out a tiny portion of the genetic code, along with other advanced gene editing techniques. It compares these to a faster version of natural selection or traditional breeding; unlike some older GMO techniques, no foreign DNA ends up in the food.
For coffee, the startup has already successfully genetically edited a variety of bean that is naturally decaffeinated. Right now, producers typically remove caffeine through a process that involves soaking beans and steaming them. “The problem is that it’s a costly and relatively aggressive process,” Gershon says. The process can impact both flavor and nutrition. “If you grow the beans without the caffeine or with a lower amount of caffeine to begin with, then you can achieve an end product that is a lot closer in taste to normal coffee, and you can maintain a larger content of the very healthy compounds that are naturally found in coffee.”
With the new round of funding, the company, which was founded in 2016, will begin testing its new varieties globally. It will also help drive the regulatory approval process–as with other genetically edited foods, there is likely to be some consumer resistance (though CRISPR-edited foods are already available in the U.S.). The company will also explore additional possible foods to work on. In the past, companies using genetic modification have focused on major row crops like corn and soy. Tropic Biosciences wants to use advanced gene editing to focus on foods that have seen less innovation, but where there is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact.
At some point, it’s possible that companies that genetically engineer food might develop entirely new products–perhaps even a caffeinated banana, for example–but Tropic Biosciences plans to focus on “developing traits that really make sense to people, traits we can communicate easily,” Gershon says. “A lot of people drink decaffeinated coffee globally. We can produce something that they’re already drinking but it’s going to taste better, be healthier. It makes sense to us.”