Biofortified bananas to save thousands of lives

SUBSCRIBE to our fortnightly e-newsletter to receive more stories like this. Biofortified bananas developed at QUT are helping save Ugandan children, many of whom are at risk of dying from vitamin and mineral deficiency-related conditions.Researchers at Brisbane's Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have genetically modified bananas to be richer in key micronutrients, notably vitamin A. Which is great news for nutritionally-deprived east African kids.

While few westerners today are vitamin-A deficient, the same can’t be said for those in less fortunate nations, such as several countries in east Africa, where bananas are a dietary staple but are low in various micronutrients including vitamin A and iron.

Now, a genetically modified variety of the East African highland banana (EAHB) developed at QUT is being grown in Uganda, in a program the researchers hope will give a life-saving nutritional boost to thousands of East African children currently at risk of dying each year from vitamin A-deficiency-related conditions. 

Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune-system impairment and negative impacts on brain development. While it is no longer an issue in most parts of the world, the problem is worsening in Africa, said QUT’s Distinguished Professor James Dale, of the university’s Institute for Future Environments, IFE Centres and Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities (CTCB).

Researcher Jean-Yves Paul says up to 700,000 children died worldwide each year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, with kids in rural areas the worst affected.

Why bananas?

The East African highland banana, usually eaten chopped and steamed, is a staple food for the people of several East African nations but contains low levels of micronutrients, particularly pro-vitamin A and iron.

Biofortified bananas are the ideal food product for boosting East African children’s levels of key micronutrients, including vitamin A and iron, Paul says, noting that “the word food in Uganda, matoke, means banana.”

Promising early results

After more than a decade of development, the first vitamin-A-boosted crop has now been grown in Uganda using a biofortified GM variety of EAHB.

"We are getting over four times our target level [of vitamin A] so we are very happy about that," Professor Dale said.

Wilberforce Kateera Tushemereirwe from the National Agricultural Research Organisation in Uganda, who’s also working on the project, said the technology that succeeded with Cavendish bananas in Australia is now impacting East African varieties.

“It is a very important project to the country,” Dr Tushemereirwe said.

Biofortified bananas stay nutrient-rich over generations

Prior to extending the project to Africa, the QUT researchers tested their genetically modified (GM), vitamin-rich Cavendish bananas on trial plots in Far North Queensland.  

They hypothesised that the trial crops would lose pro-vitamin A over successive generations but this did not occur. “Over five generations, we’ve been able to maintain the level of pro-vitamin A and, in some instances, increase it over time, which is really exciting,” Professor Dale said.

Next steps

The quest to end micronutritional deficiencies across Africa and, eventually Asia has barely started. Pro-vitamin-A-rich East African banana crops must now undergo at least six years of regulatory testing before they can be made available for consumption in Uganda. Professor Dale doesn’t expect to see any local impact until about 2025.

“We’ll almost certainly be able to select what we call our ‘elite’ line, and this is the line that will go through the regulatory process and finally be approved for farmers,” he says.

“That level of vitamin A deficiency coming down –  that's what we want to see.”

The $10 million project, the ultimate goal of which is to help eliminate vitamin-A deficiency across Asia and Africa, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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