First human trial of GM bananas to take place in the U.S.
As part of a project aimed at improving nutrition in African nations, transgenic bananas grown in northern Australia have been sent to the U.S. for a world-first human trial.
The Queensland University of Technology project, led by Professor James Dale and backed with close to AUD$10 million (US$9.38 million) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to lift the health and well-being of millions of Ugandans and other East Africans.
"Human trial is a significant milestone for this project which started in 2005 and should see pro-vitamin A-enriched banana varieties being grown by Ugandan farmers around 2020," Dale said.
"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.
"The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-700,000 children world-wide dying from pro-vitamin A deficiency each year and at least another 300,000 going blind."
Dale said there was very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency led to an impaired immune system and could even impact brain development.
"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."
The bananas were harvested from a QUT field trial in Innisfail, north Queensland and the U.S. human trials will last six weeks, with conclusive results expected by the end of the year.
The bananas have been harvested from the QUT field trial in Innisfail, north Queensland and transported to the United States for the world-first human trial. The human trial will last for six weeks with conclusive results known by the end of the year.
Previous U.S. trials using Mongolian gerbils had proven successful, however humans involved in the trial will likely spot a key difference - due to the pro-vitamin A content, the banana flesh is orange rather than the cream color we are used to.
"We are aiming to increase the level of pro-vitamin A to a minimum level of 20 micrograms per gram dry weight in order to significantly improve the health status of African banana consumers," Dale said.
He said hundreds of different permutations went into field trials in northern Queensland to make sure the science worked, and the high-performing genes had been taken to Uganda for field trials.
Dale added an elite line of banana plants would be selected and used in multi-location field trials in Uganda over the next three years.
Legislation to enable genetically modified crops to be commercialized in Uganda is currently in committee stage within the Ugandan parliament. With Ugandan Government support, legislation and regulations to enable the commercialization of genetically modified crops should be in place by 2020. Regulations enabling field trials of genetically-modified crops already exist.
Dale emphasized that once approved in Uganda, there would be no reason why the same technology couldn't be used to enrich crops in surrounding East African countries including Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.
"In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well," Dale said.
"This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in so doing lift the health and wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations."
He said the biggest challenge facing the project was purely one of logistics, going from a small-scale project to one on a national scale, but the university was working in partnerships with a team of scientists in Uganda who would, over the coming years, be joined by five Ugandan PhD students currently working on his team.