Scientists Engineer Plants to Make Infant-friendly Fat Molecules for Formula Milk
Scientists have improved the metabolism of an oilseed plant to mimic the
molecular structure of the human milk. Their technique made the oilseed
plant accumulate triacylglycerol with most of the fatty acid in the middle
of its molecular structure, instead of in the outer parts. This can
potentially lead to a new plant-based source of milk fat substitute that
infants can easily digest.
Formula milk sold for infant nutrition use milk fats from plants. However,
the molecular structure of the plant-derived fat makes it hard to digest for
infants. Its stereoisomeric structure consists of saturated fatty acids in
the outer position that makes it less suitable to infants' digestion. This
led to studies to find a human milk substitute that resembles the structure
of actual human milk.
A team from the Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom introduced a
mutation to the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a type of oilseed plant related
to mustard. The mutation allowed the scientists to change the location of an
enzyme responsible for processing fat. This resulted to saturated fatty acid
palmitate being accumulated in the middle part of the stereoisomeric
structure which is similar to human milk. The method can possibly help in
the mass production of fat molecules similar to that of a human milk's using
oil-rich plants like sunflower and oilseed rape, without making the
synthesizing process extremely expensive.