Human trials of vitamin A-boosting ‘super bananas' are about to begin
Image: Erika Fish/Shutterstock

The bananas look normal on the outside, but inside they’re fortified with alpha and beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, and also gives the super fruit a unique orange flesh. If all goes well in these human trials, they will begin growing in Uganda by 2020 according to the researchers.

The project, led by researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, is one of the most significant biofortification projects in the world, and was backed with almost $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bananas are a staple food in many regions of eastern Africa, but because of the fruit’s low levels of pro-vitamin A and iron, hundreds of thousands of people die from a lack of vitamin A. Each year around the world, 650,000 to 700,000 children die from pro-vitamin A deficiency, and another 300,000 go blind from the lack of the nutrient. 

"There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development,” said project leader Professor James Dale from QUT in a press release. "Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food."

The bananas were grown in north Queensland and have now been transported to the US for a six-week human trial. The results will be known by the end of the year, although early research already suggests they will greatly be able to enrich the diet or Ugandans.

"We know our science will work," said Dale. “We made all the constructs, the genes that went into bananas, and put them into bananas here at QUT.”

Their aim is to eventually increase the level of pro-vitamin A to at least 20 micrograms per gram of dry banana weight, in order to improve the nutrition, health and wellbeing of African banana consumers.

"Hundreds of different permutations went into field trials up north and we tested everything to make sure our science worked here in Queensland. Now the really high-performing genes have been taken to Uganda and have been put into field trials there,” said Dale.

However, while trials have begun in Uganda, the researchers are still waiting for legislation that allows genetically modified crops to be commercialised in the country. It’s predicted it will be in place by 2020. Once approved in Uganda, the researchers believe enriched bananas could also be grown in surrounding African countries.

"This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in so doing lift the health and wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations,” explained Dale.

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