Queensland, Australia (CBS SEATTLE) — Genetically engineered super bananas are scheduled to begin human trials in the U.S. with the aim of soon sending the vitamin A-enriched and Bill Gates-backed fruits to improve the health of millions of Africans.

The Queensland University of Technology project has been in the works since 2005, and now Professor James Dale says that the project – backed by close to $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — is set to be one of the most significant biofortification projects seeking to improve vitamin deficiencies rampant in East African countries.

“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,” Professor James Dale said in a statement to QUT. “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.”

Researchers enriched the bananas with micronutrients to improve the crops for possible future farming in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, pending approval for the genetically modified crops to be commercialized.

“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 continued. ”There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development.”

Field trials in Uganda have implemented “hundreds of different permutations” to develop the elite line of bananas that only appear different from other bananas on the inside of the peel.

“The banana flesh of a pro-vitamin A-enriched banana is orange rather than the cream color we are used to and in fact the greater the pro-vitamin A content the more orange the banana flesh becomes,” said Dale.

Prior to human consumption, the modified bananas were safely eaten by Mongolian gerbils. The upcoming six-week trial will see the enriched bananas being shipped from Queensland to the U.S. for continued testing.

“We know our science will work,” said Dale. “We made all the constructs, the genes that went into bananas, and put them into bananas here at QUT. Hundreds of different permutations went into field trials up north and we tested everything to make sure our science worked here in Queensland.”

Benjamin Fearnow

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