The humanitarian project, backed with close to $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to improve the nutritional content of bananas in Uganda, where the fruit is the major staple food in the daily diet.
“The East African Highland cooking banana is an excellent source of starch. It is harvested green then chopped and steamed,” Professor Dale said.
“But it has low levels of micronutrients—particularly pro-vitamin A and iron—and the consequences of vitamin A deficiency are severe.”
He said it had been estimated that 650000–700000 children world-wide die from vitamin A deficiency each year with a further several hundred thousand going blind.
Professor Dale’s research involved extensive laboratory tests at QUT as well as field trials in north Queensland which have resulted in the identification and selection of banana genes that could be used to enhance pro-vitamin A in banana fruit.
“We’ve taken a gene from a banana that originated from Papua New Guinea and is naturally very high in pro-vitamin A but has small bunches, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana,” Professor Dale said.
“Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a banana that has achieved excellent pro-vitamin A levels, hence the orange rather than cream-coloured flesh.
“We tried and tested hundreds of different genetic variations 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.”
Professor Dale said another 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.
This scientific achievement was published in the prestigious Plant Biotechnology Journal.