GLOBAL- A new study in the Nature Food journal has revealed a significant breakthrough in developing human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) from plants.

According to the study, the method could offer a more affordable and sustainable way to produce HMOs for healthier baby formulas.

Typically costly to produce artificially, HMOs are crucial prebiotic sugars found in breast milk. They play a vital role in the development of an infant’s microbiota, but they are often absent from baby formula.

The study highlights that 75% of babies worldwide consume baby formula within their first six months, yet most formulas lack HMOs or contain only one or two types.

HMOs are essential for infant development, supporting gut microbiota establishment, growth, and disease prevention. However, replicating them in commercial baby formula has been challenging.

Currently, HMOs can be produced using E. coli bacteria. Still, this process is expensive due to the need to isolate beneficial molecules from toxic byproducts, yielding a limited number of HMOs.

Some companies, like dsm-Firmenich, have produced HMOs as ingredients, but the new study has demonstrated the feasibility of producing HMOs from plants, which could be significantly cheaper.

Plants offer a promising alternative because they naturally produce sugars using carbon dioxide and sunlight. The researchers needed to reroute this natural ability to create HMOs through a molecular farming process.

All sugars are composed of monosaccharides, and creating HMOs involves forming the right linkages between these simple sugars.

The first author, Collin Barnum, engineered the genes responsible for the enzymes that make these linkages and introduced them into the Nicotiana benthamiana plant, which is closely related to tobacco. These genetically modified plants successfully produced 11 known HMOs and other complex sugars.

Barnum created a stable line of N. benthamiana plants optimized to produce an HMO called LNFP1, a five-monosaccharide-long HMO.

Producing LNFP1 with microbes has been challenging, making it difficult to study its health effects. However, this research advances the process significantly.

According to researcher Patrick Shih, the innate sugar metabolism of plants aids in the production of complex oligosaccharides like LNFP1, demonstrating the potential to produce specific HMOs.

Beyond baby formula, there are emerging markets for adult HMO use. HMOs are being studied for their potential to treat irritable bowel diseases, improve intestinal barrier function, and reduce gastrointestinal inflammation.

The ability to produce HMOs from plants provides access to previously inaccessible HMOs and offers a more efficient and scalable production method compared to microbial platforms. This innovation represents a significant step forward in infant nutrition and broader health applications.

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