Vitamin A deficiency is a worldwide public health problem that especially impacts nations in Africa and Southeast Asia — it's been estimated that anywhere from 650,000 to 750,000 kids around the world suffer from a deficit of vitamin A. According to the World Health Organization, a shortage of vitamin A is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the odds of disease and death by severe infection.
To curb the global epidemic, researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have created superfood bananas that are rich in vitamin A.
With $10 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the scientists set out to improve the nutritional content of bananas in Uganda. The fruit is a dietary staple in the east African nation. After a decade of research led by James Dale, a professor at QUT, the team was successfully able to single out banana genes and create a biofortified banana with double the normal vitamin A content.
"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," Dale says 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-colored flesh."
The team tested hundreds of genetic variations in the lab at QUT and conducted field trials in north Queensland. After pinpointing the "elite genes," Dale says they were sent in test tubes to Uganda to be inserted into the bananas there. The new fruit can be grown by local farmers as early as 2021, according to the team.
Should this work out, the modified bananas could save lives and prevent childhood blindness around the world.