Research by Ugandan scientists, at the Kawanda-based National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL), for bananas enriched with vitamin A and iron, is beginning to showing promising signs. The ongoing experiment called bio-fortification is the first of its kind in a developing country.
Dr. Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a member of the research team, told Daily Monitor, January 29, that the exciting development first appeared in late 2010 when the bananas were planted in a confined field trial at NARL, which is part of the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro). The Vitamin A genes inserted in apple (sukali ndizi) and nakinyika bananas were extracted from maize and asupina--an Asian banana cultivar--while the iron-promoting genes were got from soya beans.
"What we see is an orangish colour expression deep in the leaves, which means the gene we inserted promoting vitamin A has got fully integrated," he said, "The next thing we expect is expression of the same in the pulp (banana fingers)". This will be confirmed when the bunches are mature and opened up for examination.
Dr Arinaitwe says the Vitamin A-enriched bananas shall have to look the carrot-like orange, when peeled to confirm full expression. Solvents used in the testing for presence of vitamin and iron are expected to arrive in the country, in time for this maturing stage.
The first research of the kind in the world involving transfer of pro-vitamin A and iron genes into bananas, was conducted in Australia in 2007-2008 at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
The National Biosafety Committee at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology gave Naro/NARL permission to undertake this cutting-edge research mid-2010, led by Prof. Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, Head, Banana Research Programme in Naro.
"It is the same pro-vitamin A genes used in bio-fortification of golden rice in Asia that we have used," Arinaitwe explains, adding that they are vital in the fight against blindness in children due to Vitamin A deficiency.
Meanwhile iron deficiency in humans leads to anaemia--a state of poor blood levels in the body, with dire consequences particularly to pregnant women. Both cases lead to hundreds of deaths of blind children and anaemic pregnant women in Uganda.
According to Dr Andrew Kiggundu, a NARL molecular scientist specialising in bananas, severe vitamin A deficiency was identified in 31 out of 36 Ugandan districts surveyed in 1994.
"In 1999, it was concluded that more than 50 per cent of children consumed inadequate Vitamin A. Iron-deficiency is a major public health problem and is common in both women and children.
"For example, in early 1990s, in eastern Uganda, 40 per cent of children, less than five years old, had Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA). In 1998, IDA was recognised in approximately 50 per cent of pregnant women and about 30 per cent of maternal deaths were attributable to IDA," Kiggundu elaborated on the background to the bio-fortification project.
The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and it aims at providing a dietary fortification of staple foods as an alternative to Vitamin A and iron-rich capsules distributed through the national health system.
The two types of bananas sukali ndizi (usually used as a dessert) and nakinyika (banana for cooking), were identified to represent the most-consumed varieties in Uganda.
In the confined field trial, which is fenced off from unauthorised access, a total of 264 suckers of Vitamin A, iron-enriched transgenic lines and controls were planted in January 2010 and a number of them are bearing bunches.
Two [iron-enriched] suckers' growth is stagnated due to very high iron-concentrations that suppressed other nutrients to enable normal growth.
Principal Investigator, Prof. Tushemereirwe says their research is well-intended to provide Ugandans with a more beneficial staple banana crop for both farmers/traders and consumers. "We are the key stakeholders in this project as we scientists also consume bananas like the rest of the people. Therefore, what we shall come up with is a safe product both to humans and the environment," Tushemereirwe told a contingent of visitors to NARL from civil society, the media and NGOs.
He added that they had asked government for permission to eat the first genetically modified bananas before anybody else eats them. "We want to demonstrate to the world, the high level of confidence we have in the food from crops we have genetically-modified here, that it is 100 per cent safe", he said.
Arinaitwe says the biotech-based research is a continuous process as there are various stages yet to cover-including the conduct of the second-phase of biofortified sukali ndizi and nakinyika banana suckers that have stacked (combined) genes for pro-vitamin and iron promoters, in one sucker. This young trial was planted besides the old one (single-gene) in November 2010.