Australian bananas could save lives

By Maria Rachal 13 July 2017
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Scientists hope the bananas will reduce critical vitamin A deficiencies.

IN A WORLD-FIRST,  scientists from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have genetically engineered a nutrient-dense banana, designed specifically to reduce critical vitamin A deficiencies in Ugandan mothers and children.

According to the World Health Organization, 650,000 to 700,000 children die each year around the world as a result of vitamin A deficiency, casuing visual impairment, blindness, and lower immunity to infectious disease.

East-African cooking banana varieties, or matooke, are already a diet staple in Uganda, with more than 12 million produced in the country annually – but they lack sufficient vitamins and minerals.

The hybrid was created by inserting a gene found in Fe’i bananas – a small-bunched, provitamin A-laden variety found in Papua New Guinea and Micronesia – into Cavendish bananas, a more abundant variety common in Australia. The modified banana’s flesh is more golden-orange in appearance than its average supermarket counterpart. 

Development of the “golden banana” at QUT was over a decade in the making, the results of which were recently published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The “Banana21” project, intended to create “the next generation of bananas” through a partnership between the university and agricultural researchers in Uganda.

The project first began in 2005 and was backed with nearly $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2014, the banana entered human trials, conducted in the U.S. at Iowa State University.

After years of seeking the most highly-effective product, James Dale from the QUT, who co-authored the study said that a new milestone had been reached when a successful crop was produced in Uganda using the same engineering technique, but with the local banana variety.

“We are getting over four times our target level [of vitamin A],” he told ABC News.

Though genetically modified organisms have been a source of debate in recent years, researchers hope that eventually their fine-tailored technology will be fully adapted by Ugandan farmers. 

With work yet to be done in adopting and testing the technology in Uganda, Dale has said locals won’t experience health benefits from the development until 2025.