Thursday, July 3, 2014

Genetically Modified 'Super-Bananas' Are Being Tested in the US


A genetically modified "super-banana" is going up for clinical market trials in the US. But the fruit was in fact engineered for Uganda, with the goal of getting Ugandans some extra vitamin A.

James Dale is the director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Since 2005, Dale has been experimenting with pumping up the amount of vitamin A in the East African Highland cooking banana. He told Scientific American that “Roughly 15 to 30 percent of the Ugandan population under 5 and women of childbearing age suffer from a [vitamin A] deficiency.”

The humble banana is actually sort of the perfect food to fortify with more vitamins: They already have some beta carotene, which is a nutrient that the body uses to produce vitamin A. Varieties of bananas that are native to Papua New Guinea have even more beta carotene, to the point of being both orange like carrots, and by all accounts unpleasant to eat.

But the good news was that Dale and his team only had to weave in genetic material from the beta-carotene rich Papua New Guinea bananas into their East African Highland cousin. "This gene we isolated and put in our super-bananas is a banana gene, and it always has been," Dale said. "We simply toned down its influence."

As Jennifer Huizen explains in her excellent Scientific American article, the other reason the East African Highlands banana is an ideal vitamin vessel is that Ugandans love them. “In fact, many receive 30 percent of their daily caloric intake from them,” Huizen wrote, “eating three to 11 bananas daily, or roughly 500 to 800 pounds annually.”

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