Super Bananas Could Help Millions

super bananas
Decades ago, a new variety of rice featuring a golden hue was introduced into Asia. Developed by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg, the modified rice was created to boost vitamin A levels.

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Australian researchers have now done the same with bananas. The super bananas, and the rice before it, are infused with alpha and beta-carotene — the hydrocarbon that both gives carrots their deep orange color and the body vitamin A.

By isolating the genes responsible for beta-carotene production found in a non-edible variety of bananas, researchers were able to transplant  and increase expression of the gene in the common variety of banana. This allows the bananas to produce more beta-carotene in order to fight vitamin A deficiency in these regions. Peeling back the skin of a genetically modified banana reveals a golden hue, similar to the modified rice.

Around the world in developing countries, vitamin A deficiency causes 650,000-700,000 child deaths and another 300,000 children to go blind each year. The modified banana is intended to be a feasible means of easing the problem. The banana is a staple food in East Africa despite its low levels of vitamin A and iron. Rather than shipping thousands of carrots to developing nations,which faces difficult logistical problems, researchers believe growing the food locally is a more feasible approach. Since bananas are a staple crop in the region already, researches need only to introduce the new variety to farmers who know the cultivation process.

Researchers are about to conduct their first human trials as the bananas are shipped to the United States where they will also undergo a six-week trial intended to measure their effect on vitamin A levels.

The plan is for the genetically modified bananas to be growing in Uganda by 2020. Once the bananas are approved for commercial cultivation in Uganda, the banana can be expanded to other countries including Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.

In West Africa, where the cultivation of plantain bananas is more common, researchers have said the technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well.

The modified banana has the potential to save millions of lives in developing nations where vitamin A deficiency is a real threat. The genetically modified banana is just another way that scientists have been able to improve different regions’ staple crops to provide more and better benefits to those struggling to survive.

— William Ying 

Sources: Discovery, ExtremeTech, The Telegraph, Cnet
Photo: Flickr