Bananas genetically modified to beef up their vitamin and iron content have been unveiled by Australian researchers.
The problem that Queensland University of Technology's James Dale and his colleagues were trying to address is chronic vitamin A and iron deficiencies amongst the populations of some countries, Uganda among them, where bananas are a food staple.
"People there might cook and eat up to a kilo of bananas a day," says Dale.
"But the native fruit can be very poor sources of certain micronutrients including vitamin A, so people eating them frequently can become deficient, leading to a range of diseases including blindness."
The approach taken by the team was to produce a banana rich in the chemical precursor for vitamin A, an orange-coloured molecule called beta-carotene. When eaten, this beta-carotene is split into two vitamin A molecules in the body, in proportion to a person's vitamin A requirements, so there is no risk of vitamin A poisoning.
To do this, the team borrowed genes from other banana strains, including the Asupina from Papua New Guinea, which, owing to the presence of an altered form of a gene called phytoene synthase, naturally contain much higher levels of beta-carotene.
At the same time, to pep up the iron content of the fruit to help consumers fend off anaemia, the researchers increased the expression of a molecule called ferritin, which works like a molecular cage capable of trapping iron. By also increasing the mobilisation of iron in the plant through other genetic manipulations, the result is far more iron finding its way into the fruit, where it lodges in the ferritin until eaten.
Dale doesn't know if his modified bananas still taste okay - or at least he's not admitting to a sly bite or two - but he's about to find out thanks to the granting of a license to commence a human feeding shortly.
Meanwhile, data from gerbils, which metabolise beta-carotene and vitamin A very similarly to humans, suggests that the fruits pack an effective nutritional vitamin punch. But are the bananas safe, and could there be any risks?
Banana plants don't release pollen and generally need to be propagated by taking cuttings, so environmental control of the modified strains shouldn't be a problem. As to the chemistry of the fruits themselves, having tested them with chromatography techniques, Dale is confident that the chemical make up has not been altered beyond the enhancement of iron and beta-carotene.
But will it work? The proof really will be in the eating...
Well, the concept of genetically modifying foods to improve their nutrition value and for other purposes has been around a while, but is controversial. Some people claim that certain genetic modifications have caused allergic reactions in certain people. There is clear promise here, but I don't think we will know the entire story for some time. Atomic-S, Sat, 21st Jun 2014
Even today we mostly eat genetically modified foods--ever seen wild corn or wild strawberries? Now, this modification was mostly done by breeding (and cross breeding) over the last few thousand years, so I know it is not the exact same ethical/philosophical dilemma as that posed by overnight genetic manipulation in a laboratory, but it is good to bear in mind that very few of our fruits, vegetables and livestock (yes, even the "organic" ones) are as they were in nature 10,000 years ago.
Natural evolution has produced plenty of allergens and toxins. Food is by definition anything digestible that doesn't produce an unacceptable allergic or toxic reaction.
I will say that people commonly ingest vitamins, and all sorts of dietary supplements. Milk has been fortified with Vitamin D for quite some time, and salt has had iodine added.
"Roundup-resistant" crops are probably the ultimate high-yield monoculture, provided that the final product can be shown to contain a negligible level of glyphosate. Fortunately testing for glyphosate is fairly easy, so as long as you buy your food from a large supermarket or major manufacturer, you and the farmer will get a good deal on clean, healthy, affordable, bug-free cereal products. Or you can buy an "artisan" organic cereal for at least twice the price, fertilised by shit and piss, weeded by slave labour, and infested with all those bugs and bacteria that are resistant to nicotine and pyrethrin. alancalverd, Fri, 27th Jun 2014