The breakthrough means they could make a cost-effective copy of human milk for babies rather than the traditional formula.
Experts have engineered the plants to produce an oil that has the same chemical structure of human milk fat, the major component of breast milk. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The work has been carried out at Rothamstead Research, one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world in Harpenden, Herts.
The natural human milk fat molecule, triacylglycerol, allows nutrients to be digested by babies and replicating it from a plant could have ground-breaking results.
According to Rothamstead Research, few infant formulas at present contain anything like this molecule. In an exciting development, the study could have implications for producing better infant formula which is more quickly absorbed by babies.
Rothamstead said whilst breast milk is the best and first choice for infant nutrition, the team hopes their breakthrough could lead to improvement in all grades of formula for babies who need it.
Lead researcher, Dr. Peter Eastmond said: “We have engineered the metabolism of a plant so the fat it produces has the structure found in human milk, not vegetable oil.”
“Virtually all other organisms don’t have fat with the same structure as human milk fat, no plants do and very few yeasts, fungi or microbes do either.”
“My hope is that if we can find cheaper methods to produce fat that more closely resembles the structure of human milk fat, then it will be an ingredient more widely used in infant formulas and at a lower cost. It could improve infant formulas in the future.”
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