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Humans Are About To Taste The First Genetically Engineered "Super" Bananas

Researchers are taking cues from early genetically modified fortified foods, but not making the same mistakes (and hopefully not making new ones).

Human subjects in the United States will be the first to try a genetically engineered banana that aims to save children dying from malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa.

Every year, up to half a million children go blind—and half of those who do die within the subsequent 12 months—because of a vitamin A deficiency in their diets. In order to tackle the deficiency problem, researchers toiled away for two decades at developing genetically modified, nutrient-loaded "golden" rice that promised to enrich those diets. But while the latest experiment in feeding the world has taken cues from the Golden Rice tests, super banana research is also forging a new path—and avoiding its earlier ancestor's pitfalls.

There are high stakes placed on human trials when it comes to GM food. Two years ago, Golden Rice ran into serious controversy over them. In 2012, U.S. researchers published a human trial that resulted in the sacking of three officials when it was discovered that their subjects—Chinese schoolchildren between the ages of six and eight—and their families didn’t have a full picture of what Golden Rice really was.

From left: PhD student Stephen Buah and Professor James Dale holding up the genetically modified banana. Image courtesy of Queensland University of Technology.

The banana researchers, however, have chosen to do their human trials in the United States. Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have just sent their technology, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to Iowa State University, which will test how well the bananas can translate increased amounts of beta carotene into vitamin A in humans.

QUT professor and lead researcher James Dale credits the Golden Rice researchers with paving the way for boosting beta carotene levels in plants. Following Golden Rice's lead, Australian scientists were able to increase the amount of beta carotene in a typical Cavendish banana from two micrograms to 20.

"No one had ever done anything like this before," explains QUT professor and lead researcher James Dale. "We were engineering the metabolic pathway to get [bananas] to produce more of what they produce anyway. It’s been challenging to produce the level that we wanted to."

Super banana closeup. Image courtesy of QUT.

As far as the conversion to vitamin A levels goes, scientists have already found success in the animal trials with something called a Mongolian gerbil. It’s a promising sign for the human tests, but no guarantee.

Dale and his colleagues have been running field trials in Australia, but also transferring the gene sequences to Uganda, where field experiments should result in a final "super" banana line. Those trials, he adds, are being conducted by Ugandan researchers.

After the field trials and human tests, Dale imagines that the biggest challenges ahead lie in public perception and getting the bananas through the regulation processes. He also stresses that this kind of research differs from commercial GM crop development. The latter has attracted quite a bit of debate in recent years over the industry’s bullying tactics and adverse effects.

"There’s very, very strong evidence that the benefits of GM crops will begin to accrue, especially in the developing world," Dale says.