What's So Special About a Golden Banana?

Scientists have developed a new Vitamin-A enriched banana that could help solve world hunger problems. 

A golden banana on top, a Cavendish on the bottom (QUT/Big Think)

The world loves bananas. The fruit, which goes back to the jungles of southeast Asia around 500BC, is grown in about 150 countries. Over 100 billion bananas are eaten annually around the world, including the rural communities of Uganda, where the East African Highland cooking banana, eaten chopped-up and steamed, is a key component of the local diet.

(Source: QUT)

The world, and rural Uganda in particular, has a problem, though: Pro-Vitamin A deficiency. The World Health Organization reports that 190 million pre-school children don't get enough of this micronutrient. A lack of Vitamin A can be fatal, or cause blindness — an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 children die each year, and several hundred thousand lose their sight — and vitamin A deficiency can also cause a host of other problems including delayed growth and infertility. Recently, scientists at Queensland University (QUT) of Technology in Australia have announced a way to use the extremely popular fruit as a vehicle for solving this Vitamin A deficiency problem: They've developed the genes required to produce what they call “golden bananas." What makes them golden-orange is the amount of Vitamin A they pack. Take a look for yourself:

Golden banana on top (Source: QUT)

The decade-long, $10 million humanitarian project was led by James Dale of QUD, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Government's Department for International Development.

The researchers tried gene combination using hundreds of banana varieties —there are about a thousand of them — field-tested the results in north Queensland, to produce a satisfactory genetic cocktail. “What we've done is take a gene from a banana that originated in Papua New Guinea and is naturally very high in pro-Vitamin A but has small bunches, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana," says Dale.

For Uganda, the scientists aren't trying to replace the EAHB as the go-to banana. They're just interested in improving it since, already, "The East African Highland cooking banana is [already] an excellent source of starch," Dale says. So now Ugandan PhD graduates from QUT have taken the golden-banana genes back home in test tubes. They'll be overseeing the genes' insertion into local bananas and tracking the field trials for the new golden EAHBs. They hope to have them growing en masse for food purposes in 2021.

(Source: THE QUTUBE)

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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