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Australian researchers are saving the world, one modified banana at a time

Bananas are more important than people give them credit for. It took the furore of Bananageddon for people to realise how joyless their lives would be sans banana.

But in Uganda, where starchy cooking bananas are used as the base for many meals, bananas are life or death. As part of a 10-year study conducted at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Uganda’s all-important banana crop was identified as being poor in pro-vitamin A.

The lead researcher, Professor James Dale, estimates that an annual rate of 650,000-700,000 children worldwide die from pro-vitamin A deficiency. A further several hundred thousand go blind.

In addition to maintaining good vision, pro-vitamin A is responsible for “Other functions of vitamin A include the formation and maintenance of teeth, bones, soft tissue, white blood cells, the immune system and mucous membranes,” according to Live Science.

So, Professor Dale and his team began genetically engineering Ugandan bananas to make them richer in pro-vitamin A which would ultimately make many communities healthier.

“What we’ve done is take a gene from a banana that originated in Papua New Guinea and is naturally very high in pro-vitamin A but has small bunches, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana,” Professor Dale explained.

Truck overloaded with bananas

“Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a banana that has achieved excellent pro-vitamin A levels, hence the golden-orange rather than cream-coloured flesh. Achieving these scientific results along with their publication is a major milestone in our quest to deliver a more nutritional diet to some of the poorest subsistence communities in Africa.

Professor Dale made it clear that, although the technology was based in Australia, the aim was to have a Ugandan research team actively contributing to the solution. Over the course of ten years, therefore, the “elite genes have been sent to Uganda in test tubes where they have been inserted into Ugandan bananas for field trials there.”

Watch Professor Dale talk about this incredible (and genuinely life-changing) research project.

About the author

Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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