Last updated November 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm
A genetic engineer who developed bananas with the potential to save millions of lives has been named 2019 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year.
Distinguished Professor James Dale, who has developed potentially lifesaving “Golden Bananas” for some of the poorest people on Earth is the 2019 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year.
An agricultural biotechnologist from the Queensland University of Technology, Dale and his team have genetically modified East African bananas to enrich them with pro-vitamin A in an effort to significantly improve nutrition.
Vitamin-A deficiency is the world’s major cause of preventable blindness in children, with between 250,000 to 500,000 new cases every year. According to the World Health Organisation, half of those will die within 12 months of losing their sight. Deficiency also increases the risk of disease and death from infections.
Overall, it is estimated around 2.8 million children are at increased risk of blindness due to Vitamin-A deficiency worldwide.
With bananas being a staple of East African diets, Dale turned his attention to genetically modifying the fruit to supplement diets and reduce this nutritional shortfall.
“As a result of research conducted over more than a decade, we’ve been able to develop a banana that has achieved excellent pro-vitamin A levels, hence the golden-orange rather than cream-coloured flesh,” says Dale of his modified bananas.
“The bananas are currently in field trials in Uganda, where the fruit is the major staple food in daily diet, and expect to be released for use within the farming community within four years.”
Ugandan students that Dale mentored are now overseeing the research and trials in their home country.
Protecting banana crops
Dale’s other major research has involved modifying Cavendish bananas to made them more resistant to the fungal-infection Fusarium wilt or Panama Disease tropical race 4 (TR4). Posing a serious risk to banana crops worldwide, the fungus infects plants through their root system, blocking the vascular system and killing the plant.
Already responsible for largely wiping out commercial Gros Michel banana production in the 1950’s, new strains of the fungus are beginning to affect Cavendish cultivars.
“It is a huge problem that has devastated Cavendish plantations in many parts of the world and is spreading rapidly across Asia,” says Dale.
“TR4 can remain in the soil for more than 40 years and there is no effective chemical control for it.”
“It is a very significant threat to commercial banana production not just in Australia but worldwide.”
In a world-first, the team are currently conducting a field trial in heavily TR4-infested soil in the Northern Territory.
Dale will be Queensland’s representative at the national Senior Australian of the Year awards, to be announced in Canberra in January.