Building a Better Banana

With a few genetic tweaks, one Australian researcher is transforming the slippery fruit into a high-impact lifesaver.
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With a few genetic tweaks, one Australian researcher is transforming the slippery fruit into a high-impact lifesaver.

For the last nine years, James Dale has been working to build a better banana. But his aim was not to make the fruit sweeter or easier to peel. The director of the center for tropical crops and biocommodities at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology has been tweaking the banana’s genes to transform it from a humble fruit into an incognito lifesaver. Dale has been working to make the food staple a better source of vitamin A and iron. If he can pull it off at scale, Dale will have engineered a sustainable solution to a major global health problem.

What is called micronutrient deficiency is a major issue in areas where people depend on a small selection of foods to provide their daily calories. The lack of diversity can lead to diets short on vitamin A or iron. If you go long enough without one or the other, bad things happen.

Vitamin A helps with bone growth, retina function, and immune system response. Popeye was right; we need spinach. When vitamin A-rich foods aren’t available over an extended period of time, our eyes stop working and we lose the power to fight off illness.

Then there’s iron deficiency—the world’s widest-spread nutrition problem. Without enough iron, we struggle to make a sufficient number of red blood cells, which transport our body’s oxygen. Iron deficiency is one of the leading causes of maternal death during childbirth.

Getting crucial nutrients to those that need them has typically happened one of two ways: with supplements or with food fortification. Handing out supplements can be an effective short-term solution, but tends not to be sustainable. And, as Dale explains about fortified food, “You have to buy food that’s fortified. For populations that don’t buy food, it doesn’t work.”

So he thinks the banana could save the day. India and Uganda are the top two banana producers in the world. Ugandans eat more than two pounds of bananas daily, and in India, especially in the south, bananas are a crucial component of a mostly vegetarian diet. But those country’s banana varieties, which are starchier than what we pick up at the grocery store, are woefully low in nutrients. By packing more nutrients into a package so many already depend on, Dale feels we could put a significant dent in a major health problem.

“There are bananas in the South Pacific that have incredibly high levels [of vitamin A], but they’re not edible,” explains Dale. To improve the bananas people eat, Dale used genes from the ones we don’t.” The result tastes the same, but looks slightly more yellow.

The most meaningful change is an invisible one: a four-fold increase in provitamin A, which would provide 50 percent of the dietary requirement.

Impressed with Dale’s work, the Indian government signed an agreement with the Queensland University of Technology in March to launch a similar project, but this time with iron as the focus.

Tackling iron deficiency, as it turns out, is trickier. Bananas don’t make the metal, they pull it up from the ground. So Dale is working to figure out not only how to get the bananas to absorb more, but also how to channel it to the correct location—the fruit.

When fully developed, the technology will be handed over to local organizations to produce a local cultivar. “The bananas are distributed to innovators in villages with the agreement that they’ll give some away,” says Dale. “It’s very cheap and very sustainable.”

Although the iron experiments are a few years behind their vitamin A equivalent, results so far look promising. Within a decade, says Dale, super bananas could be silently saving lives.