A new genetically modified “super” banana has hit the news. They’re heading for human trials in the US and to the fields of Uganda by 2020, if all goes as hoped for the Australian and Ugandan scientists developing them. Like carrots, the engineered bananas are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A when eaten, and which gives their flesh an orange hue. John Dale, who leads the team developing the bananas, thinks that they will prove good for eyesight too. 250,000 to 500,000 children are blinded by vitamin A deficiency each year, it’s the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Furthermore, children without sufficient levels of vitamin A have weakened immune systems, so common childhood diseases like measles and diarrheal diseases are more deadly. In East Africa, vitamin A deficiency is common and bananas are a staple crop. If these bananas make it to market, farmers maybe able to lift quality of life simply by swapping yellow fruit for orange. These genetic modification were all in the family- researchers introduced genes from a foreign banana species that naturally produces high levels of beta-carotene into indigenous East African Highland bananas.
If all this sounds kind if familiar, you may be thinking of Golden Rice, which premiered about ten years ago. The first iterations of this fortified food incorporated a daffodil gene (and a couple others) into rice so that it would produce beta-carotene production in the part of rice we eat. However the lab to table journey of this crop is stalled in the field since it still has lower crop yield than regular white rice. Creating a viable “improved” crop isn’t as easy as one, two, gene. As the unfinished tale of Golden Rice shows, adding new genes can have undesired side-effects that have to be understood and redressed before a crop is commercially viable. Political uncertainties abound as well. Uganda’s parliament is currently discussing legislation that would permit commercialization of GMO crops. Whatever path they take, super bananas are certainly part of a bold, emerging strategy to combat malnutrition disease and hunger across the globe.
Managing editor: Amy Gilson