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Biotech project bears fruit

James Dale at QUT, Gardens Point, Brisbane.

(AUSTRALIA)

A long-running research programme at an Australian university has resulted in the development of a ‘golden’ banana. Packed with pro-vitamin A, it is part of a humanitarian effort to improve the diet in Uganda, where it is the major food staple.

Professor James Dale has led the research, which was backed by $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The golden-orange fleshed ‘biofortified banana’ combats vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which, according to the World Health Organisation “is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.”

Nearly three quarters of a million children die every year from VAD, Professor Dale said.

“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,” he explained. “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.”

Professor Dale added: “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.

“We tried and tested hundreds of different genetic variations here in our lab and in field trials in Queensland until we got the best results.

“These elite genes have been sent to Uganda in test tubes where they have been inserted into Ugandan bananas for field trials there.”

The study was published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

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