Going Bananas! The Golden Banana Improving Vitamin A Intake

Following in the footsteps of the award-winning and highly acclaimed Golden Rice, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology have developed a ‘golden banana’.

Whilst most us think of a banana as a sweet treat or healthy snack, bananas in East Africa are a staple food and an ingrained part of their culture. They are so much a staple food that the word in Uganda for food itself – ‘matoke’ – means banana!

In Uganda, where bananas are the principal staple food, consumption levels average between 0.5kg to 1kg per person per day. The variety of banana is unlike the Cavendish banana we commonly eat in Australia. The most common East African variety is the East African highland banana, which are high in starch, and prepared in a similar way to how we prepare potatoes (chopped and steamed).

However, this variety of banana is also low in micronutrients. Nutrient deficiency is a large problem in many East African nations. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and impairs the immune system. Around 600,000 children die in East Africa annually due to Vitamin A deficiency, and 300,000 go blind.

Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology identified that there are varieties of banana which naturally contain high levels of pro-vitamin A and iron, which are grown in many parts of the world including Northern Queensland. The team were able to identify the banana gene from these varieties, and develop cells from these genes.  These genes have been taken to Uganda, and put into local banana varieties.

The lead researcher, Professor Dale, describes the project:

“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”.

This means that, like Golden Rice, the nutrient enhanced variety has a golden-orange flesh, unlike the pale yellow of the Cavendish variety.

Transferring traits across varieties is extremely difficult through conventional breeding methods as most cultivated banana varieties are nearly sterile. The pro-vitamin A variety has been developed with modern biotechnology, and genetic modification of tissue cultures.

The team from QUT, in collaboration with the Uganda National Agricultural Research Organisation, has been working on the biofortified banana project for 12 years.

Many of the Ugandan researchers working on the project completed their PhD in Australia, and are now working on the project home in Uganda.

Professor Dale points out that:

 “One important aspect is that the experimentation done in Uganda is done by Ugandans, not by us… we transfer the technology”.

Find out more in the video: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-07/designer-bananas-to-save-thousands-of-lives/8686626

The biofortified bananais expected to be common amongst farmers in Uganda by 2021. This project shows the enormous opportunities that modern biotechnology can have on hundreds of millions of people globally.

The $10 million project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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