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Health

Researchers Transform Tobacco-Like Plant to Produce Nutrients Found in Human Breast Milk

New research led by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Davis, has unveiled a promising approach to bridge the nutritional gap between breast milk and infant formula. The study focuses on genetically engineered plants capable of producing human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), essential sugars crucial for fostering healthy gut bacteria and bolstering disease resistance in infants.

Human breast milk is renowned for its complex blend of prebiotic sugars, approximately 200 varieties, which are challenging to replicate in commercial infant formulas. Despite being a primary source of nutrition for around 75 percent of infants globally, formula currently falls short of mimicking breast milk’s full nutritional spectrum.

The study, published in Nature Food, explores how researchers reprogrammed the sugar-producing mechanisms in plants to synthesize a diverse array of HMOs. According to Patrick Shih, senior author and Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley, plants possess an innate ability to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into a wide range of sugars, making them ideal candidates for producing HMOs.

The research team, including first author Collin Barnum and collaborators at UC Davis, successfully engineered Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant closely related to tobacco, to generate 11 known types of HMOs, alongside other complex sugars with similar structural patterns. This breakthrough demonstrates the feasibility of producing all three major groups of HMOs simultaneously within a single organism, a feat previously unattained.

Barnum, a former graduate student at UC Davis, particularly focused on optimizing N. benthamiana to produce LNFP1, a beneficial five-monosaccharide-long HMO that has proven challenging to produce at scale through conventional microbial fermentation methods.

The potential of this approach extends beyond infant nutrition. If scaled industrially, plant-based production of HMOs could offer a more cost-effective and efficient alternative to current methods, such as using engineered E. coli bacteria. The envisioned outcome involves directly incorporating these plant-derived HMOs into infant formula, thereby enhancing its nutritional value without the complexities associated with current production methods.

While acknowledging the challenges ahead in commercializing this technology, Shih emphasized the transformative impact it could have on infant nutrition, envisioning a future where these plant-produced HMOs become a standard component in enhancing the health benefits of formula feeding worldwide.

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