Research on super bananas designed and grown in Queensland could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries.
Australian and African scientists are collaborating to genetically modify them into a rich source of vitamin A.
A trial crop is bearing fruit in far-north Queensland and the first bunches have been sent to the United States for human trials.
On the outside the bananas look like the ordinary Cavendish variety, but what is under the peel is what counts, agricultural scientist Jean-Yves Paul sai.d
“So this is the fruit from one of our best lines, 324 A5," the Ivory Coast scientist said.
"As you can see, it’s yellower than an ordinary banana and you can see the orange specks in there in high concentrations."
The bananas in this test crop in Innisfail have been genetically modified with carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.
Papua New Guinean bananas provided the gene that was spliced with local varieties to create a highly nutritious super food.
Horticulturalist Jeff Daniells from the Queensland Department of Agriculture, who helped source the Papua New Guinean variety, said the Asupina variety was collected in Papua New Guinea about 25 years ago.
“It’s a very special sort of banana," he said.
"One of the characteristics found out about 10 years or so ago was that this type of banana naturally has very high levels of beta-carotene, but some of the eating aspects of this plant aren’t really what’s looked for by most people.”
At the Queensland Univeristy of Technology in Brisbane, researchers are refining the genetic modification technique for their banana hungry countries.
“Ugandans on a daily basis, they consume about 1.5 kilograms a day, so we’re talking about 400 to 600 kilograms a year,” Ugandan researcher Stephen Buah said.
Mr Buah, a researcher at the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, said bananas are the number one food crop for Ugandans but their diet lacks a vital ingredient.
“A recent health survey has actually shown up to 30 per cent of children in Uganda are vitamin A deficient and a similar figure goes for women who are pregnant,” he said.
“What touches me as a researcher, as a scientist is to produce something that is tangible, that is beneficial to the local population."
The super banana project has received $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help reduce global hunger.
“Vitamin A deficiency is probably the third largest of the public health problems in the world,” project leader Distinguished Professor James Dale said.
“Somewhere between 600,000 and two million children die every year of vitamin A deficiency, a horrendous human toll, another million or so go permanently blind.”
Genetically modified bananas have already successfully passed animal feeding tests with Mongolian gerbils.
“I didn’t know anything about Mongolia gerbils before we started this project,” Professor Dale said.
"Mongolia gerbils metabolise pro-vitamin A in a very similar way to humans. A quirk of nature."
The first human test results from the United States are expected by the end of this year.
The researchers reject concerns that their bananas are some kind of Frankenfood.
“We know the ultimate compound, beta-carotene, that’s not toxic, the gene comes out of bananas, that can’t be toxic, people have been eating that for thousands of years,” Professor Dale said.
“We don’t believe there is any significant concern about these bananas.
“The other important thing, the anti-GMO people talk about genetic pollution, that’s really the movement of genes between a genetic modified crop and and a non-genetically modified crop. It doesn’t happen in bananas, they’re sterile.”
Test crops are already in the ground in Uganda and it is hoped Ugandans will be growing these bananas commercially and consuming them by 2020.
Australian consumers will not get to try the bananas but the research is already being applied to create genetically modified, disease-free local varieties.