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[KAMPALA]The entire genome of the banana plant has been sequenced, offering insights into its genetic evolution that could lead to significant future genetic improvements, the researchers involved have said.

The study’s lead researcher, Angelique D'Hont, from the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), told SciDev.Net that the knowledge of the genome sequence could greatly facilitate research and breeding programmes in Africa and elsewhere.

According to D'Hont, the research findings, which were published in Nature on 11 July, will be of particular value to work on improving various banana attributes.

"These attributes include yield capacity, bunch size, tolerance of adverse conditions such as drought and disease, and resistance to pests," explained D'Hont.

In each case, knowledge of the genome will help researchers to identify specific genes linked to such traits.

Genetic components of the banana variety whose genome was sequenced, Musa acuminata, are common in dessert and cooking bananas.

The other species from which many cultivated bananas are derived is Musa balbisiana. In Africa, several varieties are a result of crossing of these two species

"As this [sequence] information is now freely available for other scientists and breeders to use, in Africa this will greatly facilitate ongoing research at different levels", D'Hont said.

The sequencing was carried out by scientists from the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and Genoscope, formerly the French National Sequencing Centre.

The project started in 2009, under the framework of the Global Musa Genomics Consortium, with funding from France's National Research Agency (ANR).

D'Hont, alongside 60 other scientists, produced a reference genome sequence for Musa acuminata.

"This now provides access to more than 36,000 genes of bananas and enables other researchers to re-analyse ongoing studies from new perspectives, as well helping to speed up research on other bananas,” D'Hont told SciDev.Net.

Andrew Kiggundu, head of banana biotechnology research at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories Institute (NARL) in Kawanda, Uganda, said his institute has already been looking at the opportunities for improving the banana crop.

He said that as a result of the publication of the genomic sequence, researchers at the institute are now able to identify easily the genes important for developing resistance to diseases, pests and drought, without having to use genes taken from other organisms.

He added that knowledge of the genomic sequences will help researchers both to move genes between different varieties of banana, and also understand why some genes known to work in other plants do not seem to work in the banana.

Link to the full study in Nature