The decade-long research, led by Professor James Dale at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), involved extensive laboratory tests and field trials in north Queensland.
Dale said the genetic modification process resulted in the identification and selection of banana genes that could be used to enhance pro-vitamin A in banana fruit.
The research, backed by close to $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ultimately aimed to improve the nutritional content of bananas in Uganda, where the fruit is the major staple food.
Dale described the development of the bio-fortified banana as a significant humanitarian project.
"The East African Highland cooking banana is an excellent source of starch. It is harvested green, then chopped and steamed,” he said. “But it has low levels of micronutrients, particularly pro-vitamin A and iron. The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are severe.”
Excellent vitamin levels
He added it had been estimated that 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide die from pro-vitamin A deficiency each year, with a further several hundred thousand going blind.
“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 said.
“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. 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."
Ugandan farmers will begin growing the pro-vitamin A rich bananas in 2021.
"Our science works," Dale said, “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.”
He said another really pleasing aspect of the project was the fact that young Ugandan students, who came to QUT to undertake their studies, had now completed their PhDs and were overseeing the research and field trials in Uganda.