Science - January 7, 2016

Searching for a better banana

Rob Ramaker

Gert Kema wants to protect the banana plant from the encroaching fungal disease. Last December he was appointed as professor of Tropical Phytopathology.

His career started with wheat research, but today Gert Kema is known for his work with bananas. Worldwide, the commercial banana production, which relies entirely on one species, is threatened by a new strain of the fungus Fusarium. This causes the Panama Disease which destroyed the dominant banana species in the fifties. Kema is searching for solutions for the short, but primarily, for the long term. ‘I regard this appointment as a recognition for the work that we have performed in recent years.’

It is work with which it is easier to raise money than for wheat research. He works together with banana companies and governments from countries with a lot of banana export. Finding money for long term solutions, such as developing a new improved banana species, is really difficult. ‘You have to search for funding that fits your research.’

That is why a couple of years ago Kema and two partners founded the company MusaRadix. They search for wild banana species that protect the plant against Fusarium. MusaRadix is also testing promising control methods that are brought on the market by companies. This could possibly slow the Fusarium epidemic.

As professor Kema will work together with Bart Thomma, professor of Phytopathology. Together they want to set up a course in Tropical Phytopathology that allows students to become familiar with a range of diseases in tropical crops. For this Kema wants to use his international network, for example in Costa Rica.

I do not have a single Dutch PhD-students
Gert Kema, professor of Tropical Phytopathology

Furthermore, Kema hopes to expand his work to the (fungal) diseases of coffee and cocoa. He is consulting with the government of Ecuador about a large project with 27 PhD students. ‘This is not only about diseases’, says Kema. For example, work will also be done on cadmium tolerant crops. ‘It will be an interdisciplinary programme in which we will collaborate with chair groups of Plant Breeding, Soil Science and Social Sciences of Wageningen UR.’

It is international work, says Kema. Without exaggerating. ‘I do not have a single Dutch PhD student.’ Among others, his team includes Ecuadorians, Ugandans, Indonesians and Filipinos. People from countries that are directly related to bananas, sometimes they even grew up on a plantation. Still we do not find it strange to perform this research in the Netherlands. ‘The Netherlands has a leading breeding industry. Then why not work on bananas?’ he says. ‘Eventually you just have to take a leap of faith.’