Australian researchers have created a vitamin A-enriched, genetically modified banana. The super fruit took more than a decade to develop, and scientists hope that it will reduce the number of deaths due to vitamin A deficiency. The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient. Between 250,000 and 500,000 children per year go blind from this deficiency, and about half of those who go blind die within a year. In most of the world, there have been reductions in cases of vitamin A deficiency in children due to the efforts of non-governmental organizations. In the country of Uganda, however, cases have risen.
Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world, but one thing there is no shortage of is bananas.
In fact, the word for food in the African nation is matoke, which literally translates to banana. The average Ugandan eats between one and two pounds of bananas per day. While this versatile food provides essential calories for Ugandans, it does not contain the necessary micronutrients to keep people healthy. That’s where Professor James Dale of Queensland University of Technology comes in. Dale and his colleagues started with a species of banana from Papua New Guinea that contained high levels of provitamin A (which humans convert into vitamin A). Because this type of banana tree only produces small bunches of bananas, it is not ideal for replacing the current Ugandan species. However, splicing select genes from the Papua New Guinea banana into a standard Cavendish banana resulted in a biofortified fruit that had higher levels of vitamin A while maintaining a high yield.
Researchers call the genetically modified fruit a golden banana.
Calling the fruit golden seems appropriate, considering that it could save hundreds of thousands of lives. And while it cost the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation a $7.6 million donation, Ugandans won’t have to shell out an exorbitant amount for it. The scientists behind the golden banana hope that Ugandan farmers will begin growing the fruit by 2021, making it widely available to people in need. Dale told Newsweek, “Achieving these scientific results along with their publication, is a major milestone in our quest to deliver a more nutritional diet to some of the poorest subsistence communities in Africa. Our science works. We tried and tested hundreds of different genetic variations here in our lab and in field trials in Queensland until we got the best results.” The researchers have sent genes to Uganda to begin genetically modifying local species of banana. Field trials should take approximately six years, at which point Ugandan children will start receiving higher doses of vitamin A through their daily meals. “We’ll almost certainly be able to select what we call our ‘elite line’ and this is the line that will go through the regulatory process and finally be approved for farmers,” Dale said. The professor admitted that he didn’t expect to see a reduction of vitamin A deficiencies until 2025, but by then, Ugandan children will start receiving a badly needed boost of nutrients.