Scientists have developed a new type of banana that could help the many children in Uganda who have a pro-vitamin A deficiency.
The so-called “golden bananas”, named for their appearance, were developed by a team from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, led by Professor James Dale. The findings have been published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
It’s hoped that by 2021, Ugandan farmers will be growing bananas rich in pro-vitamin A. About $10 million was supplied by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the research.
The process involves modifying single banana cells, which then grow into banana embryos and germinate into plants. More than 12 years of laboratory tests and field trials in north Queensland were necessary to perfect the technique. Ugandan scientists are now replicating the technique with local banana varieties.
"What we've done is take a gene from a banana that originated in Papua New Guinea and is naturally very high in pro-vitamin A but has small bunches, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana," Professor Dale said in a statement.
"Over the years, we've been able to develop a banana that has achieved excellent pro-vitamin A levels, hence the golden-orange rather than cream-coloured flesh.”
Bananas are a staple food in rural communities in Uganda. Here people eat the East African Highland cooking banana, which is an excellent source of starch, but has low levels of micronutrients, including pro-vitamin A and iron.
About 650,000 to 700,000 children die around the world from pro-Vitamin A deficiency. Several hundred thousand more go blind. Other symptoms can include delayed growth, infertility, dry skin, and more.
So this golden banana could be incredibly useful. The team tried and tested hundreds of different genetic variations, before settling on the final recipe. Test tubes containing the necessary genes have been sent to Uganda, where they have been inserted into local bananas for field trials.
"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,” added Professor Dale.