Vitamins and minerals are classified as micronutrients because they are needed in trace amounts compared to the large loads of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins needed for body function. However, these small amounts of vitamins are still essential for proper health. After all, these vitamins help with our body’s metabolism and growth, and they fight against disease (1). Micronutrient deficiencies are quite common among the global population even though they are often preventable.
The World Health Organization has noted the danger of a nutrient crisis that plagues mainly young children and pregnant women in Africa and Southeast Asia: Vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency has been declared a global health issue and affects ⅓ of the world’s children between the ages of 6 to 59 months (2). It is estimated that 250,000 to 500,000 children with vitamin A deficiency become blind annually, with half of them dying within a year of losing their sight (3).
Though the deficiency is easily preventable, Vitamin A deficiency remains a problem due to the lack of the vitamin in the diets of children and pregnant women living in developing or low-income countries. While projects supported by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reached those affected by providing vitamin A supplements, over 140 million children remain untreated (2).
In approaching this issue, researchers (led by Professor James Dale from the Queensland University of Technology) sought to change diets to be more inclusive of vitamin A in order to avoid malnutrition. They commenced project Banana21 to modify an already nutritious plant to match the needs of those with vitamin A deficiency: the golden banana.
The research team focused on improving the nutritional value of bananas in Uganda, where bananas are part of the staple diet (5). While the banana already sports high levels of potassium, fiber, and vitamin B6 (4), the researchers genetically modified the banana to have pro-vitamin A. The researchers would grow single banana cells into banana embryos and then germinate them into plants (6). They tried several genetic variations and combinations, but they ultimately took a gene from a banana originating in Papua New Guinea that had high levels of pro-vitamin A and inserted the gene into a Cavendish banana (5).
The resulting fruit was more golden-orange than its original cream color.
After consuming the banana, the body would convert the pro-vitamin A to vitamin A, providing the needed micronutrient.
James Dale and his team have sent copies of the gene to Uganda, where scientists will incorporate the gene into Ugandan bananas. They hope that by 2021, Uganda farmers will be growing bananas with high levels of pro-vitamin A.
These bananas are expected to be affordable and easily accessible to the Ugandan public, making the bananas truly golden in treating vitamin A deficiency.
References and Footnotes:
(1) Vitamins. (2017, January 07). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002399.htm
(2) Coverage at a crossroads: New directions for vitamin A supplementation programmes. (2018, May 03). Retrieved from https://data.unicef.org/resources/vitamin-a-coverage/
(3) Micronutrient deficiencies. (2013, December 09). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/
(4) Arnarson, A. (2014, October 10). Bananas 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods/bananas
(5) Queensland University of Technology. (2017, July 7). Golden bananas high in pro-vitamin A developed: Research has produced a golden-orange fleshed banana, rich in pro-vitamin A. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170707095806.htm
(6) QUT. (2017, July 07). QUT develops golden bananas high in pro-vitamin A. Retrieved from https://www.qut.edu.au/news?news-id=119796
(7) Paul, J., Harding, R., Tushemereirwe, W., & Dale, J. (2018). Banana21: From Gene Discovery to Deregulated Golden Bananas. Frontiers in Plant Science,9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2018.00558