Imagine you’re eating a banana.
As you start to strip away the yellow peel, you notice that the inside seems different. Instead of the banana’s flesh being a pale cream color, it’s a rich golden-orange.
Would you eat that?
Because that’s what scientists from Queensland University of Technology in Australia have created using genetic modification. And these golden bananas aren’t just for show. They could save hundreds of thousands of kids a year from going blind, or even dying.
In the United States, bananas are smoothie ingredients and breakfast toppings. But in some parts of the world, they’re as essential as bread.
Bananas are one of the world’s staple crops. In West Africa, they’re as important to the local diet as rice is to East Asia or potatoes were to the Irish. In parts of Uganda, the typical diet includes more than two pounds of bananas a day.
But no single food has all the vitamins and minerals a person needs to live, and without a varied diet, you can get sick. For bananas and the people who depend on them, it’s vitamin A that’s the problem — there isn’t enough in the fruit.
Not getting enough vitamin A is a big deal, especially for children. It can weaken the immune system and stunt growth, and it’s the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness in the world. Of the preschool-age children who die every year in Africa, about 6% die of not getting enough vitamin A.
The obvious answer would be to eat a more varied diet, but fresh fruits and meat can be costly, and many low-income farmers don’t have the money.
But now scientists might have an easy way to add that oh-so-crucial vitamin into any banana they please.
Not all bananas lack vitamin A, but the ones they eat in Uganda do. You could try to crossbreed them with a vitamin-rich variety, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t work. Domesticated bananas are sterile.
So scientists used genetic modification. Using genes from a vitamin-A-rich (but hard-to-grow) strain called Fe’i, QUT professor James Dale and his team loaded commercially viable banana seedlings with beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A.
It took some experimenting, but they were able to up the beta-carotene content in the fruit by more than 30 times — hopefully, enough to stave off vitamin A deficiency.
As an interesting side effect, the banana’s flesh ended up turning a rich, golden yellow.
Beta-carotene isn’t just a source of vitamin A. It’s also a naturally occurring bright orange pigment. (It’s responsible for giving carrots their color.)
As for taste, Dale says it was unaffected.
This particular project was just a proof of concept, but Dale and his colleagues have now given the technology to local Ugandan scientists, who’ll start experimenting with Ugandan banana plants.
“They will be the leaders,” Dale says.
Other attempts to use genetic modification to fortify foods have been met with skepticism and resistance. In 2013, a field of vitamin-A-enriched “golden rice” was vandalized and destroyed by protesters in the Philippines. But Dale says their project is different from commercial genetic modification. They’re not patenting any of the technology, and since domesticated bananas are sterile, there shouldn’t be any worry about cross-pollination.
This could be an easy, self-sustaining way to save hundreds of thousands of kids a year.
The hope is to start sharing the bananas with Ugandan farmers soon. Once they’re out there, the farmers will be free — and encouraged — to give saplings to their friends and neighbors, as well.
People could be planting, eating, and sharing the golden bananas as soon as 2021.
Funding for professor Dale’s project was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development.