Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Banana

(G. Campbell /Shutterstock)

Building a Better Banana

• May 09, 2012 • 6:00 AM

(G. Campbell /Shutterstock)

With a few genetic tweaks, one Australian researcher is transforming the slippery fruit into a high-impact lifesaver.

For the last nine years, James Dale has been working to build a better banana. But his aim was not to make the fruit sweeter or easier to peel. The director of the center for tropical crops and biocommodities at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology has been tweaking the banana’s genes to transform it from a humble fruit into an incognito lifesaver. Dale has been working to make the food staple a better source of vitamin A and iron. If he can pull it off at scale, Dale will have engineered a sustainable solution to a major global health problem.

What is called micronutrient deficiency is a major issue in areas where people depend on a small selection of foods to provide their daily calories. The lack of diversity can lead to diets short on vitamin A or iron. If you go long enough without one or the other, bad things happen.

Vitamin A helps with bone growth, retina function, and immune system response. Popeye was right; we need spinach. When vitamin A-rich foods aren’t available over an extended period of time, our eyes stop working and we lose the power to fight off illness.

Then there’s iron deficiency—the world’s widest-spread nutrition problem. Without enough iron, we struggle to make a sufficient number of red blood cells, which transport our body’s oxygen. Iron deficiency is one of the leading causes of maternal death during childbirth.

Getting crucial nutrients to those that need them has typically happened one of two ways: with supplements or with food fortification. Handing out supplements can be an effective short-term solution, but tends not to be sustainable. And, as Dale explains about fortified food, “You have to buy food that’s fortified. For populations that don’t buy food, it doesn’t work.”

So he thinks the banana could save the day. India and Uganda are the top two banana producers in the world. Ugandans eat more than two pounds of bananas daily, and in India, especially in the south, bananas are a crucial component of a mostly vegetarian diet. But those country’s banana varieties, which are starchier than what we pick up at the grocery store, are woefully low in nutrients. By packing more nutrients into a package so many already depend on, Dale feels we could put a significant dent in a major health problem.

“There are bananas in the South Pacific that have incredibly high levels [of vitamin A], but they’re not edible,” explains Dale. To improve the bananas people eat, Dale used genes from the ones we don’t.” The result tastes the same, but looks slightly more yellow.

The most meaningful change is an invisible one: a four-fold increase in provitamin A, which would provide 50 percent of the dietary requirement.

Impressed with Dale’s work, the Indian government signed an agreement with the Queensland University of Technology in March to launch a similar project, but this time with iron as the focus.

Tackling iron deficiency, as it turns out, is trickier. Bananas don’t make the metal, they pull it up from the ground. So Dale is working to figure out not only how to get the bananas to absorb more, but also how to channel it to the correct location—the fruit.

When fully developed, the technology will be handed over to local organizations to produce a local cultivar. “The bananas are distributed to innovators in villages with the agreement that they’ll give some away,” says Dale. “It’s very cheap and very sustainable.”

Although the iron experiments are a few years behind their vitamin A equivalent, results so far look promising. Within a decade, says Dale, super bananas could be silently saving lives.

Rachel Swaby
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to Wired, Gizmodo, and Afar, and a senior editor at Longshot Magazine. She can be found on Twitter (@rachelswaby), or playing the newest iPad puzzle game.

More From Rachel Swaby

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.