Panama disease

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Panama disease
Common names Panama disease of banana
vascular wilt of banana
Causal agents Fusarium oxysporum
Hosts banana
Distribution Panama

Panama disease is a plant disease of the roots of banana plants. It is a type of fusarium wilt, caused by the fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc). The pathogen is resistant to fungicide and cannot be controlled chemically.

During the 1950s, Panama disease wiped out most commercial Gros Michel banana production. The Gros Michel banana was the dominant cultivar of bananas, and the blight inflicted enormous costs and forced producers to switch to other, disease-resistant cultivars. New strains of Panama disease currently threaten the production of today's most popular cultivar, Cavendish.

Symptoms and host range[edit]

Two external symptoms help characterize Panama disease of banana:

  • Yellow leaf syndrome, the yellowing of the border of the leaves which eventually leads to bending of the petiole.
  • Green leaf syndrome, which occurs in certain cultivars, marked by the persistence of the green color of the leaves followed by the bending of the petiole as in yellow leaf syndrome. Internally, the disease is characterized by vascular discoloration. This begins in the roots and rhizomes with a yellowing that proceeds to a red or brown color in the pseudostem.[1]

These symptoms often get confused with the symptoms of bacterial wilt of banana, but ways to differentiate between the two diseases include:

  • Fusarium wilt proceeds from older to younger leaves, but bacterial wilt is the opposite.
  • Fusarium wilt has no symptoms on the growing buds or suckers, no exudates visible within the plant, and no symptoms in the fruit. Bacterial wilt can be characterized by distorted or necrotic buds, bacterial ooze within the plant, and fruit rot and necrosis.[1]

Once a banana plant is infected, it continues to grow and any new leaves will be pale in color. Recovery is rare, but if it does occur, any new emerging suckers will already be infected and can propagate disease if planted.[1]

Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) is most prominent in banana, but some other relatives are also susceptible to infection. Different races of the disease are used to classify different major hosts affected by it. Race 1 was involved in the outbreak which destroyed much of the Gros Michel banana plantations in Central America. Cavendish bananas are resistant to race 1. Under subtropical conditions, subtropical race 4 of Foc will attack Cavendish bananas, and tropical race 4 will do so even in tropical conditions. Race 2 affects a cooking and dessert banana, Bluggoe.[2]

Disease cycle[edit]

Modern banana plants are reproduced asexually, by replanting the plant's basal shoot that grows after the original plant has been cut down. The fruit contains no seeds, and the male flower does not produce pollen suitable for pollination, prohibiting sexual reproduction. This causes all bananas of a single breed to be nearly genetically identical. The fungus easily spreads from plant to plant because the individual plants' defenses are nearly identical.[3]

The disease is dispersed by spores or infected material that travel in surface water. One of the biggest issues in spreading the disease is the means by which new banana plants are planted. Suckers are taken from one plant and clonally propagated to grow new trees. About 30 to 40% of suckers from a diseased plant are infected and not all show symptoms, so the chance of growing a new, already infected plant is fairly high. Finally, the disease is known to infect certain weeds without showing symptoms, meaning it can survive in the absence of banana plants and remain undetected in a place where bananas are planted later.[4]

FOC is thought to persist only asexually, as a teleomorph or sexual phase has not been found and no recombinant genotypes have been observed.[5] This means that the survival and dispersal of the disease relies on purely asexual spores and structures. The disease survives in chlamydospores which are produced as the plant dies and can survive in the soil for upwards of 30 years. When the environment is ideal and there are host roots available, these chlamydospores will germinate and hyphae will penetrate the roots, initiating infection. There is in increase in the number of symptomatic plants when inflorescences emerge and the highest disease incidence occurs right before harvest.[4] Once infected, microconidia are produced and present within the vessels of the plant’s vascular system. Macroconidia are another asexual spore that tends to be found on the surface of plants killed by Panama disease.[6] Infection is systemic, moving through the vascular system and causing yellowing and buckling that starts in older leaves and progresses to younger leaves until the entire plant dies.[4]


Gros Michel devastation era[edit]

Gros Michel was the only type of banana eaten in the United States from the late 19th century until after World War II. From the beginning,[when?] however, a serious disease was present in the banana plantations of Central America. The problem was first diagnosed in Panama after which it was named. Over several decades, the fungus spread from Panama to neighboring countries, moving north through Costa Rica to Guatemala and south into Colombia and Ecuador.

The banana industry was in a serious crisis, so a new banana thought to be immune to Panama disease was found and adopted, the Cavendish. In a few years, the devastated plantations resumed business as usual, and the transition went smoothly in the American market. Shortly thereafter, Malaysia entered the banana-growing business. Cavendish banana plantations were new to that country in the 1980s, but they rapidly expanded to meet the demand. Thousands of acres of rain forests and former palm oil plantations were shifted to banana production. Within a few years, though, the new plants began to die. It took several years to identify the problem. They found it to be Panama disease, although the Cavendish was then thought to be immune, but was immune only to the strain of the fungus that destroyed the Gros Michel. The version that annihilated the Gros Michel was found in only the Western Hemisphere, but the version found in Malaysian soil was different, and the Cavendish is susceptible to it. It killed and spread faster, inspiring more panic than its earlier counterpart in Panama. The newly discovered strain of F. oxysporum was named tropical race 4 (TR4).

TR4 devastation era[edit]

The Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense pathogen affects banana crops worldwide, and its most recently identified variant: Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which emerged in southeast Asia in the 1990s, and has since spread to Cavendish plantations in the Middle East and Africa[7]. To date, it has not reached West Africa or Latin America, but except for quarantine and exclusion, no barrier to its spread have been identified.

In July 2013, members of OIRSA, a Latin American regional organisation for plant and animal health, produced a contingency plan specific to TR4 for its nine member countries (Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama), the plan is only available in Spanish[8]. March 2015 Latin America growers met to create a regional defense effort and planned to meet again in September or October of that year. No specific regional measures are in place. Ecuador growers requested the government to fumigate all container[9] Scientists are trying to modify the banana plant to make it resist Panama disease and many other serious banana afflictions ranging from fungal, bacterial, and viral infections to nematodes and beetles. Researchers are combing remote jungles searching for new wild bananas. Hybrid bananas are being created in the hope of generating a new variety with strong resistance to diseases. Some believe the best hope for a more resilient banana is through genetic engineering, however, the resulting fruit also needs to taste good, ripen in a predictable amount of time, travel long distances undamaged, and be easy to grow in great quantities. Currently, no cultivar or hybrid meets all of these criteria.

Australian quarantine[edit]

In Queensland, a farm in Tully, 1500 km north of Brisbane, was quarantined and some plants were destroyed after TR4 was detected on March 3, 2015. After an initial shutdown of the infected farm, truckloads of fruit left in April with harvesting allowed to resume under strict biosecurity arrangements. The government says it is not feasible to eradicate the fungus. Researchers like Wageningen’s Kema say the disease will continue to spread, despite efforts to contain it, as long as susceptible varieties are being grown.[10] The disease was again detected in Tully in July 2017, prompting Biosecurity Queensland to impose quarantine conditions.[11]

Disease management[edit]

Currently, fungicides and other chemical and biological control agents have proven fairly unsuccessful, or only successful in vitro or in greenhouses, in the face of Panama disease of bananas. The most commonly used practices include mostly sanitation and quarantine practices to prevent the spread of Panama disease out of infected fields. However, the most effective tool against Panama disease is the development of banana trees resistant to Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Cubense.[1] Unfortunately, the clonal reproduction of banana has led to a consequential lack of other varieties. Efforts are being made to produce resistant varieties, but with bananas being triploids which do not produce seeds, this is not an easy task. Creating clones from tissue cultures, rather than suckers, has proven somewhat successful in breeding resistant varieties, however, these tend to have decreased success in stress-tolerance, yield, or other beneficial traits necessary for commercial varieties.[4] Nevertheless, these efforts are leading to the best control measure for Panama disease of banana.

Recently, an R gene (RGA2) was transformed into Cavendish bananas which confers disease resistance to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4. This is the first case of successful resistance in the field and is a promising step towards preventing the loss of the Cavendish cultivars that are a huge portion of banana export production and subsistence of many communities.[12]

Banana breeding impeded by triploidy[edit]

One major impediment to breeding bananas is polyploidy; Gros Michel and Cavendish bananas are triploid and thus attempts at meiosis in the plant's ovules cannot produce a viable gamete. Only rarely does the first reduction division in meiosis in the plants' flowers tidily fail completely, resulting in a euploid triploid ovule, which can be fertilized by normal haploid pollen from a diploid banana variety; a whole stem of bananas would contain only a few seeds and sometimes none. As a result, the resulting new banana variety is tetraploid, and thus contains seeds; the market for bananas is not accustomed to bananas with seeds.

Experience showed that where both meiosis steps failed, causing a heptaploid seedling, or when the seedling is aneuploid, results are not as good.

Second-generation breeding using those new tetraploids as both parents has tended not to yield good results, because the first generation contains the Gros Michel triploid gene set intact (plus possibly useful features in the added fourth chromosome set), but in the second generation, the Gros Michel gene set has been broken up by meiosis.

The Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research cultivates several varieties of the Gros Michel. They have succeeded in producing a few seeds by hand-pollinating the flowers with pollen from diploid seeded bananas.[13]

See also[edit]

  • Black sigatoka (a leaf-spot disease of banana plants caused by the ascomycete fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis (Morelet))


  1. ^ a b c d Perez-Vincent, Luis; Dita, Miguel A.; Martinez-de la Parte, Einar (May 2014). Technical Manual: Prevention and diagnostic of Fusarium Wilt (Panama disease) of banana caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense Tropical Race 4 (TR4). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 
  2. ^ Ploetz, Randy C. (2006). "Fusarium Wilt of Banana is Caused by Several Pathogens Referred to as Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense". Phytopathology. 96: 653–656. doi:10.1094/phyto-96-0653. 
  3. ^ Burton, Reg (2015-03-04). "Panama disease threatens NQ bananas". Fairfax Media. 
  4. ^ a b c d Hwang, Shin-Chuan; Ko, Wen-Hsuing (June 2004). "Cavendish Banana Cultivars Resistant to Fusarium Wilt Acquired through Somaclonal Variation in Taiwan". Plant Disease. 88: 580–588. doi:10.1094/pdis.2004.88.6.580. 
  5. ^ Koenig, R.L.; Ploetz, R.C.; Kistler, H.C. (May 1997). "Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense Consists of a Small Number of Divergent and Globally Distributed Clonal Lineages". Phytopathlogy. 87: 915–923. doi:10.1094/phyto.1997.87.9.915. 
  6. ^ "Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense". ProMusa. July 2017. Retrieved 25 October 2017. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ ?
  10. ^ Sedgman, Phoebe. "There Might Be No Saving the World's Top Banana". Retrieved 2015-06-06. 
  11. ^ McKillop, Charlie (13 July 2017). "Panama disease outbreak on Queensland banana farm prompts quarantine restrictions". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2017. 
  12. ^ Dale, James; et al. (November 2017). "Transgenic Cavendish plants with resistance to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4". Nature Communications. 8: 1–8. doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01670-6. 
  13. ^ Carla Helfferich (1990). "Battling for Bananas". Alaska Science Forum. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 


  • Go Bananas: New Scientist, pp. 38–41 20 April 2013

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