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06-14-2024

Engineered plants make baby formula as healthy as breast milk

Babies are those adorable little bundles of joy that fill our lives with giggles, cuddles, and the occasional diaper explosion. But did you know that the baby formula or breast milk they eat in their early months could shape their health for years to come?

Scientists from University of California, Berkeley are making exciting strides in ensuring all babies get the best nutrition possible through options such as baby formula, even if they aren’t exclusively breastfed.

Breast milk vs. formula for babies

Breast milk, nature’s own superfood for babies, is packed with a unique blend of around 200 prebiotic sugar molecules.

These sugars aren’t just for sweetness; they play a crucial role in preventing disease and nurturing the growth of beneficial gut bacteria in infants.

But here’s the catch: replicating this complex cocktail of sugars in commercial infant formula has been a challenge.

While formula provides essential nutrients, it hasn’t been able to match the full nutritional punch of breast milk. This is where the exciting world of plant engineering comes in.

Power of plants in baby formula

Plants are like nature’s very own sugar factories. They harness sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce a vast array of sugars, both simple and complex.

So, a team of brilliant scientists thought, “Why not reprogram these sugar-making machines to produce the same sugars found in human breast milk?”

And that’s precisely what they did.

Engineering the baby formula solution

In a recent study, researchers genetically modified plants to create human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the special sugars found in breast milk.

The scientists tweaked the plants’ genes to produce the enzymes responsible for creating the specific linkages that make HMOs unique.

The result? Genetically modified Nicotiana benthamiana plants, close relatives of tobacco, started churning out 11 known HMOs along with a variety of other complex sugars similar to those found in breast milk.

“We made all three major groups of human milk oligosaccharides. To my knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated that you could make all three of these groups simultaneously in a single organism,” explains Patrick Shih, the study’s senior author.

Boon for babies and beyond

This breakthrough isn’t just about baby formula. The implications are far-reaching. Imagine healthier, more affordable formula for babies worldwide, or nutrient-packed non-dairy plant milk for adults. The possibilities are truly exciting.

Collin Barnum, the study’s first author, emphasizes the significance of producing a specific HMO called LNFP1.

“LNFP1 is a five-monosaccharide-long human milk oligosaccharide that is supposed to be really beneficial, but so far cannot be made at scale using traditional methods of microbial fermentation,” Barnum notes.

“We thought that if we could start making these larger, more complex human milk oligosaccharides, we could solve a problem that that industry currently can’t solve.”

From plants to plates

Although engineered E. coli bacteria have been utilized to produce certain HMOs, the extraction and purification process is complex and costly.

This is due to the bacteria producing not only the desired HMOs but also potentially harmful byproducts. Separating these byproducts from the HMOs requires intricate procedures, increasing production expenses.

In contrast, plant-based production systems offer a potentially more efficient and cost-effective approach. By utilizing plants as biofactories for HMOs, the purification process may be simpler, as plants typically do not generate the same toxic byproducts as bacteria.

This could streamline the extraction of HMOs, reducing costs associated with purification and making them more accessible for wider use.

“Imagine being able to make all the human milk oligosaccharides in a single plant. Then you could just grind up that plant, extract all the oligosaccharides simultaneously and add that directly into infant formula,” notes Shih.

Of course, there are challenges to overcome before this becomes a reality, but the potential benefits are undeniable.

Sweet future ahead for nutrition

The science of engineering plants to produce human milk sugars is still in its early stages, but the progress made so far is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a testament to human ingenuity and our unwavering commitment to providing the best possible start for our little ones.

So, the next time you see a baby formula aisle, remember that the future of infant nutrition might just be growing in a field, not fermenting in a lab. And that’s a sweet thought indeed.

The study is published in the journal Nature Food.

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