2014-06-30

Co.Exist

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.

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10 Comments

  • A carrot has 4,142 micrograms of beta-carotene, based on a quick search.... I love the idea of a super banana, but maybe other options are more readily available.

  • hmt24

    Fascinating article - I'd never realised that vitamin A deficiency was such a serious issue. Shows how much we take for granted in the West with our easy access to supermarkets and a wide selection of healthy foods on every corner. Congratulations to Stephen Buah and James Dale for their inspiring work to stop all those children going blind.

  • mmoore

    Anyone who thinks avoiding blindness and death is not beneficial ( that would be you, Pedro) is not seeing things clearly. Vitamin A deficiency kills more children than anything else - more than malaria, HIV or TB. Most of these children are on rice diets, but many also have access to bananas.

    The only reason there is such bounty in our stores, including the organic section, is because science has been used for thousands of years to understand ways to make crops more suited to our needs. GM is just the latest and most advanced method. It copies what bacteria and viruses have been doing since life began, and so is not at all 'unnatural'.

    I am very glad to see this article, a healthy counter to the ignorant misinformation spread by vested interest organizations like Greenpeace and Mike Adams.

    Michael Moore Executive Director Allow Golden Rice Society

  • It would be infinitely easier to provide Vitamin A tablets to the millions of children who are deficient. Instead, their bio diverse fields of Vitamin A rich crops are taken over by biotech seeds with false promises. But bio tech needs " social heart felt" excuses for ravaging lands, farmers and societies with these genetically engineered monstrosities. Do a little research, Michael :FDA scientists in the beginning were very concerned about biodiversity, toxins, allergens, unknown diseases but they were bullied out by govt/biotech and the policy of "substantial equivalence" still rules. There's nothing scientific about " just about the same." The foundation of Genetic engineering was built on the "one gene equals one protein " paradigm. This was proven false when the Human Genome Project demonstrated that man has about 25000 genes , far fewer than is necessary to fulfill Crick's theory. More here.
    http://www.saynotogmos.org/dna_myth.html

  • Dn Mngn

    Which "bio-diverse fields of Vitamin A rich crops" are you referring to? It's the lack of these that is causing the problem...

  • Tamara Kay

    They were not third world, until Congress got there, with their Development, through such as USAID. You tell me why there are starving children, but never a hungry or homeless corporation, on corporate welfare...

  • There is no scientific evidence that supports GMO being beneficial. Instead of messing around with food in this way there should be be other greener ways developed to help people throughout the world. Chemistry and genetic manipulation are more apt to cause problems in the long term that other solutions. I think chemical and genetic shortcuts are the lazy way out.

  • Dn Mngn

    The lazy way out... I always wonder if individuals such as yourself realize there would be famine and riots if it were not for the very things you are fighting against. I suppose, if you were willing to loose a substantial part of the population, your criticisms would hold true and we could go completely green.

    I'm all for more testing and scientific study of GMOs. Really excited for what the future holds