This Genetically-Modified Super Fruit May Solve One of the World's Biggest Problems


This is a global map of vitamin A deficiency:

Image Credit: World Health Organization via Wikimedia Commons

A lack of this vitamin, a compound critical for everything from immune function to vision and reproduction, is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and is an especially severe problem in Africa.

The last time scientists tried to address the problem by adding the genes for vitamin A production to a food prominent in developing countries, it ended in controversy. This time, instead of adding the vitamin-precursor-producing genes to rice, a team of researchers is putting them in a staple fruit: bananas.

Image Credit: Flickr

This makes sense, considering that many in the developing world survive on the fruit. In fact, 90% of the world's bananas are eaten in low-income countries, where close to 400 million people rely on them for up to one-quarter of their daily calories.

The project is currently focused on releasing the GMO fruit to Ugandan farmers, where some 70% of Ugandans depend on them for sustenance, according to the team's lead researcher, Queensland University of Technology professor James Dale. Compared with Americans, who eat just 22 pounds of bananas annually, Ugandans sustain themselves with the fruit, eating close to 536 pounds per person each year.

Five Ugandan Ph.D. students worked with Dale to modify the bananas so they would contain higher levels of the compound beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. There are signs the project is being taken seriously; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $10 million in the venture, on which the researchers have been working for nearly a decade.

The super-bananas arrived in the U.S. on Monday, where they will be tested in humans. If all goes well, the researchers will release the super fruits to Ugandan farmers as early as 2020. Eventually, they'd like to see the fruit grown in Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.