By Kim Smiley
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries, but it remains a major public health issue in more than half of all countries, particularly in especially in Africa and South-East Asia. Researchers at the Queensland University have created a “super banana” genetically engineered to contain alpha- and beta-carotene that they hope will reduce vitamin A deficiency in parts of the world where bananas are a staple crop.
The problem of vitamin A deficiency can be analyzed using a Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis. A Cause Map is built by determining how an issue impacts the overall goals and then asking “why” questions and laying out the answers visually to show the cause-and-effect relationships. In this example, the overall goal of public safety is impacted because vitamin A deficiency causes 650,000 – 700,000 deaths and results in blindness in 250,000-500,000 children annually. This occurs because the body, especially growing bodies, needs vitamin A to function properly and the diet does not contain adequate vitamin A.
Bodies use vitamin A in a number of ways. For example, vitamin A is important for healthy vision and a lack of it will result in blindness. It has been shown to play an important role in the immune system. Diets in some regions of the world lack enough vitamin A because they are poor subsistence-farming communities that predominantly consume locally grown crops and the local crops don’t contain sufficient vitamin A.
There have been a number of different ways to help reduce the occurrence of vitamin deficiency such as distribution of vitamins and introduction of new crops, but the problem of vitamin deficiency is still a widespread issue which led to the idea of genetically modifying local crops to be more nutritious. The idea behind the “super banana” is that they would look the same as other East African Highland bananas and grow in the same conditions, but that they would be enriched with additional nutrients. The inside of the “super bananas” is more orange than regular East African Highland bananas, but the outside looks the same.
Lab tests with gerbils have been successful and the first human trials of the modified bananas are scheduled starting this summer. If the human trials are successful, the next necessary step is for Uganda’s legislature to approve a bill allowing the crops to be grown. Researchers are hoping to have the modified bananas growing in Uganda by 2020 if the government approves the project.
To view a high level Cause Map, click on “Download PDF” above.