According to the Queensland University of Technology's Prof. James Dale, 650,000 to 700,000 children die worldwide every year due to pro-vitamin A deficiency. Many of those children live in East African nations such as Uganda. Dale's proposed solution? Take something that's already grown and eaten there, and genetically modify it to produce the needed vitamin. That's what he's done with the Highland cooking banana. The resulting "super bananas" are about to be the subject of human nutritional trials in the US.
Prof. Dale and his colleagues started work on the project in 2005, backed by almost US$10 million in funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They chose the cooking banana due to the fact that it's already a key part of the diet in many East African nations, so an improvement in the banana should have a marked effect on the health of the population.
The super bananas were developed through a series of field trials in north Queensland, Australia. They look like regular yellow cooking bananas from the outside, but their flesh is orange in color – the more pro-vitamin A is present, the more orange they are. Dale hopes to ultimately get the vitamin level up to at least 20 micrograms per gram dry weight.
They have already been tested on Mongolian gerbils in the US, with promising results. In the upcoming trials, however, a group of human test subjects will be consuming them for a period of six weeks. The results should be determined by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the bananas are now being grown in field trials in Uganda. The aim is to identify "an elite line of banana plants" over the next three years, which could ultimately be grown not just in Uganda, but a variety of East African nations. The technology could conceivably also be applied to other related food crops, such as the plantain.
The university expects the Ugandan government to enact legislation allowing for the commercialization of genetically modified crops within six years.
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