The University Network

What Vitamin B12-Infused Plants Would Mean To The World

Vegans, vegetarians and those who can’t afford meat may no longer be faced with vitamin B12 deficiency, an issue that has long affected plant-based eaters, thanks to new research from the University of Kent, UK.

Vitamin B12 (or cobalamin) is an essential dietary component that is neither made nor required by plants, leaving a large population of the world to either rely on supplements or remain deficient, until now.

The researchers have found that common garden cress plants can safely absorb vitamin B12, a prospect that may open the door to supplementing a variety of plants with the vitamin.

The paper is published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.   

Plant Experiments & Community Engagement

A team of Kent scientists led by Martin Warren, a professor in Kent’s School of Biosciences, sought to engage local students from Sir Roger Manwood’s School once a week in a science project.

Image: University of Kent

Since garden cress takes about a week to grow, they worked with the students and their biology teachers to construct a project to investigate the detection and measurements of B12 in the plants.

The students grew garden cress containing increasing concentrations of vitamin B12, which was fed to the plant.

After one week, they removed, washed and analyzed the plants’ leaves.

The researchers found that the seedlings absorbed the vitamin and stored it in their leaves.

Further Investigation

To confirm this discovery, Warren and his team created a type of vitamin B12 that emits fluorescent light when activated with a laser.

They then fed it to the plants and found that the vitamin was absorbed in a part of the leaf cell called a vacuole.

This confirmed their initial observations, and provides evidence that some plants are able to absorb and transport cobalamin.

“We imagine that many other plants will also show a similar property — but we have not had time to investigate this further — and there is plenty of scope to optimise the system in terms of finding plants that take up B12 and take it up efficiently,” said Warren.

In addition to this discovery, the researchers demonstrated that the same technique could be used to combat parasitic infections.

“If we can attached fluorescent groups to B12 and still find that this B12-fluorescent molecule complex is still absorbed, then it suggests that we can use B12 to carry other molecules (such as antiparasitic drugs) into parasites such as worms — and use the B12 as a trojan horse,” said Warren. “Also, the fluorescent B12 molecules can be used to help identify the uptake mechanism of B12 in worms, and the uptake mechanism can be targeted in drug development.”

Global Impact

The ability for plants to absorb vitamin B12 would not only affect vegetarian and vegan populations, but it would also help people in impoverished countries who can’t afford meat.

“In India, where there is a high level of vegetarianism — coupled with general poverty — it has been estimated that 90 percent of the population are either deficient or are insufficient for the nutrient,” said Warren.

Many other developing countries face similar issues, he explained. The prohibitive cost of meat causes more people to live on vegetarian diets.

Another significant problem is that as the world population increases, space for farming will shrink and more people would have to live on vegetarian diets.

“All of these points mean that more and more people will have lower levels of B12 — and hence new ways of providing B12 to people will have to be found,” said Warren. “Supplementing plants with B12 would be a good of helping overcome dietary B12 shortages.”

The research has a long way to develop though.

“Our current process of adding B12 to plants as they grow is not very efficient — but hopefully we can improve on this by trying different plants and growth conditions,” he said.

Warren and his team are currently working with colleagues in India to demonstrate and further test the study.

Additionally, they have been looking into the global problem of B12 deficiency and insufficiency, so they can make the vitamin more generally available.

“Vitamin B12 is the most expensive of the water-soluble vitamins and hence we are looking at ways to reduce its production costs,” he said.