Scientists Create Genetically Modified Bananas to Overcome Vitamin A Deficiency

In an effort to deal with vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, researchers in Australia have developed genetically modified bananas with high levels of Vitamin A.

Touted as the world’s first golden-orange fleshed Vitamin A-rich bananas have been developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) as part of a “significant humanitarian project” to save thousands of lives of East African children.

The project is aimed at improving the nutritional content of the banana, which is a major food staple in Uganda, the east-central African country which has a severe Vitamin A deficiency. By some estimates, between 650,000-700,000 children die each year due to Vitamin A deficiency and a large number of people have gone blind in Uganda.

The genetically modified bananas with high levels of provitamin A are created as a strategy to save African lives, researcher Professor James Dales from the Queensland University of Technology said.

“There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development,” Professor Dale said.

“The worst outcome of vitamin A deficiency is death and the second worst outcome is permanent blindness,” Dales explained, “It also leads to impaired immune systems and impaired brain development.”

“Even conservative estimates say that around 700,000 kids die every year of vitamin A deficiency.”

The genetically modified bananas were first tested on the Cavendish bananas in north Queensland, and the project subsequently was migrated to Uganda. Backed with nearly $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project has begun to plant the new biofortified fruit in Uganda.

The fruit is transported to the US for the world-first human trial. “Human trial is a significant milestone for this project which started in 2005 and should see pro-vitamin A-enriched banana varieties being grown by Ugandan farmers around 2020,” Professor Dale said.

Although the new biofortified banana proved extremely successful during growing trials in North Queensland, but Dales fear the fruit will not be available to eat in Uganda for a further six years as it has to pass through the country’s tough regulatory testing system. He did not expect locals to receive the positive health effects until 2025.

“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. If we start to see … suddenly that level of vitamin A deficiency coming down, that’s what we want to see,” Prof. Dale said.