This golden banana could save thousands of lives

A genetically modified banana could improve the nutrition of millions of Ugandans – and save thousands from dying – thanks to pioneering work from an Australian scientist.

Distinguished Professor James Dale from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has developed a “biofortified” banana: a version of the yellow fruit that contains increased levels of Vitamin A.

Bananas are a major staple of the diet in Uganda, where a person will consume an average of 0.5kg of the food a day. A variety that is harvested when green, cooked and later mashed, is popular and provides a good source of starch, but this type has low levels of Vitamin A and other nutrients, such as iron.

To make them more nutritious, Professor Dale’s work takes a particular gene extracted from a banana species common to Papua New Guinea that is already rich in the vitamin and injects it into the varieties commonly grown in Uganda and East Africa.

The project, which is the result of more than a decade of research, is supported by $7.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and aims to combat the effects of Vitamin A deficiency, which can include blindness, a weakened immune system and death from as a result of illness. In Uganda more than a third of women and children are Vitamin A deficient, and under-nutrition is the underlying cause of 60% of deaths for children under five in the country.

The genetic modification was first carried out on Cavendish bananas and the results were grown and harvested in Queensland. Some of these fruits were sent to the US for testing on humans in 2014, and field tests have also been conducted in Uganda using the east African Highland variety of the fruit. The aim is for the fruit to be approved by Uganda regulators and authorities by 2021, from which time they could be grown by farmers as a crop and purchased by consumers.

“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,” said Dale.

While the genetically modified bananas will have the same yellow peel as the ordinary fruit, their flesh will be more orange in colour, as a result of the high Vitamin A content. According to Dale, the same technology could be introduced to banana crops in other countries, including Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania; it could also work with other varieties, such as plantain.

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