Genetically Engineered Plants: A Breakthrough in Infant Nutrition

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Genetically Engineered Plants: A Breakthrough in Infant Nutrition

In a groundbreaking study published in Nature Food, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Davis, have unveiled a revolutionary approach to infant nutrition. Approximately 75% of infants worldwide rely on formula in their first six months, but current formulas fall short of replicating breast milk’s nutritional complexity. Breast milk’s unique blend of around 200 prebiotic sugar molecules, known as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), play a crucial role in disease prevention and gut health, yet remain challenging to synthesise.

Genetically Engineered Plants: A Breakthrough In Infant Nutrition

The new research demonstrates how genetically modified plants could bridge this nutritional gap. By reprogramming plants’ sugar-producing mechanisms, the team successfully coaxed them into creating diverse HMOs. This innovation promises not only healthier and more accessible infant formula but also enhanced non-dairy milk alternatives for adults.

“Plants are remarkable sugar factories,” explains Patrick Shih, the study’s senior author. “We’ve harnessed this natural process to produce HMOs by rerouting their sugar metabolism.”

The team engineered genes for enzymes that form HMOs’ unique linkages and introduced them into Nicotiana benthamiana, a tobacco relative. The result? Plants that produced 11 known HMOs and other complex sugars.

“We’ve achieved all three major groups of HMOs in one organism—a first in science,” Shih adds.

Collin Barnum, the study’s first author, also developed a stable plant line optimized for producing LNFP1, an HMO with significant health benefits yet difficult to produce at scale.

Currently, only a few HMOs are commercially available through engineered E. coli bacteria, but the process is expensive and limited. This plant-based method could revolutionise the industry by being more cost-effective.

As infant nutrition takes a monumental leap forward with this plant-based innovation, the future looks brighter—and healthier—for babies worldwide.

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