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Jun 17, 2014 04:52 AM EDT

Researchers Develop “Super Banana” to Avert Blindness and Deaths Among African Children

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Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology have developed a "super" banana that contains elevated levels of vitamin A.

The genetically-modified fruit, packed with micronutrients, looks the same on the outside but the flesh has more orange than cream colour. Researchers are aiming to avert blindness and deaths from Vitamin A deficiencies among African children through the super-enriched bananas.

"Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food," said project leader Professor James Dale in a statement.

"The Highland or East African cooking banana, which is chopped and steamed, is a staple food of many East African nations, but it has low levels of micronutrients, particularly pro-vitamin A and iron," Dale added. "We're aiming to increase the level of pro-vitamin A to a minimum level of 20 micrograms per gram dry weight."

According to the World Health Organisation, Vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness (300,000) and infant deaths (650,000-700,000 children) throughout low-income communities around the world. Vitamin A deficiency causes impaired immune system and impacts brain development.

Researchers said that enriching staple food can be one of the best ways to boost the health and well-being of millions of Ugandans and other East Africans.

The bananas have been harvested from the QUT field trial in Innisfail, north Queensland, and will be transported to the United States for the world's first human trial.

The pro-vitamin A-enriched banana will be subjected to a six-week human trial at Iowa State University to test its effect on Vitamin-A levels. Researchers hope to have results by the end of this year and plan to have special banana varieties - enriched with alpha and beta carotene that the body converts to vitamin A - growing in Uganda by 2020.

Researchers said that once the genetically modified bananas are permitted for commercial cultivation in Uganda, the same technology has the potential to be transferred to other staple crops in Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.

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