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UK researchers boost B12 in pea shoots using aeroponics

22 September 2023

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A team of UK researchers have discovered a way to biofortify pea shoots with Vitamin B12 using aeroponic indoor farming

This breakthrough could contribute to more sustainable and healthier diets, in line with the Eat Lancet Planetary Health Diet and the recent WWF Eat4Life dietary recommendations.

Biofortification is the process of enhancing the nutritional value of crops through biotechnology, traditional plant breeding or agronomic practices that increase the amount or types of vitamins or nutrients compared to what is normally present.

In a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded project, scientists from the John Innes Centre, LettUs Grow and the Quadram Institute have identified one of the nutrients that hold immense promise for biofortification – Vitamin B12. The project uses LettUs Grow’s ultrasonic aeroponic technology to grow B12 fortified pea shoots which contain the recommended daily dose in a single small portion.

It is a powerful tool that can address malnutrition, particularly for those in developing countries where access to nutrient-rich foods is often limited. Traditionally, B12 has been a nutrient primarily obtained from animal sources. Deficiency can lead to severe and irreversible damage, particularly to the brain and nervous system. As we’re increasingly being encouraged to move towards more plant-rich diets for both human and planetary health, B12 is becoming a nutrient of great interest. Biofortification can unlock new sources of this essential nutrient.

Prof. Martin Warren, Chief Scientific Officer at the Quadram Institute said: “This is a really exciting development in providing an adequate intake of vitamin B12 to enhance overall health and well-being. This is important as B12 plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including red blood cell formation, nerve function, and DNA synthesis.

Many people, especially those on plant-based diets are prone to B12 deficiency and insufficiency – and while vitamin B12 supplements are available, some people may find it more convenient and natural to obtain essential nutrients directly from whole foods. Fortified plants hold the potential to provide a more integrated way to meet nutritional requirements.”

Unlike traditional vitamin supplements, biofortified crops align more closely with our existing dietary habits and cultural preferences since they are integrated into commonly consumed foods. Using this new method, a standard salad bag could contain as much B12 as two portions of beef. This makes it easier to integrate into people’s daily life, which helps promote sustainable dietary changes.

Because biofortified crops provide essential nutrients derived from the food we consume, they’ve got a broader range of nutrients beyond isolated vitamins; containing a combination of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals. Together these work to support overall health and well-being. In contrast, vitamin tablets are usually synthetic and may not have the same bioavailability or other beneficial compounds present in whole foods.

As we face the urgent need to shift towards more sustainable and eco-friendly diets, rich in plant foods, biofortification can help ensure that these diets are not just kinder to our health, but also our the planet.

How do we ensure that biofortified crops are not just grown, but grown sustainably, efficiently, and at a scale that can feed our ever-growing population? The scientists at John Innes Centre, Quadram Institute and LettUs Grow found one potential answer lies in aeroponic indoor farming. Aeroponics is a method of growing plants where the roots are watered with a nutrient mist. This allows the plant to absorb as much nutrients, water and oxygen as it needs while it grows.

Prof. Antony Dodd, Head of Cell and Developmental Biology at the John Innes Centre, said: “Advances in understanding of how plants interact with their environments, including new horticultural technologies such as vertical farms that use aeroponics, provides exciting opportunities to produce crops that are more nutritious, with less environmental impact. By combining expertise in plant sciences, human nutrition and horticultural engineering, we are developing new approaches to address nutritional deficiencies, at relatively low cost.”

Indoor farming, which includes greenhouses and vertical farms, is an approach to agriculture that maximises yield while minimising environmental impact. These controlled environments allow for year-round growth, efficient use of space and resources, and the elimination of traditional farming risks like pests, diseases, and unpredictable weather.

In the context of biofortification, indoor farming can play a pivotal role. First, by providing optimal conditions to maximise growth of the crops. Secondly, by enabling the precise delivery of nutrients via aeroponics to these crops, the team have been able to optimise their nutritional profile.

The type of aeroponics used to grow the biofortified pea shoots is unique to LettUs Grow. It uses sound that travels at frequencies above 20,000 Hz – above the range of human hearing – to shake water until it disperses into a mist. This mist is used to provide water and nutrients to the crop. Because this method allows precise control of nutrient delivery, the team have been able to use this within the biofortification process to optimise the nutritional profile of the crops.

Lilly Manzoni, Head of Research and Development at LettUs Grow said: “Something that’s really exciting about this project in particular is that it is the first time the enhanced yield potential of aeroponics has been combined with the nutrition enhancement of B12 fortification in a way that can be scaled up to commercial volumes. This potential to scale the innovation is crucial for accessibility of the end product and getting it out at a level that could hopefully positively impact public health.”

This project showcases the power of collaborations across academia and industry to drive positive change in people’s diets. Together, biofortification combined with indoor farming, could help us combat malnutrition, promote sustainable diets, and contribute to a healthier, more nourished world.

This story was originally posted by our partner, the Quadram Institute, on their website here.

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