Bioscientists aim to beat the world’s B12 nutrient crisis

Martin Herrema
Indian-villager by hadynyah }

A new research project led by the University aims to tackle the worldwide epidemic of vitamin B12 malnutrition by providing alternative sources of the nutrient.

B12 deficiency is particularly prevalent in the elderly and those on a vegetarian diet and can result in anaemia, cognitive issues and neural tube defects in unborn babies.

The problem is particularly evident in India because of its high number of vegetarians and the University’s School of Biosciences will link up with Indian researchers to develop this new process.

The project, which begins on 1 April, will involve researching whether newly constructed bacterial strains can be used to provide large quantities of purified B12.

This holds the potential for India to be able to produce all its own B12, rather than having to rely on expensive imports. In so doing, the project will also address serious concerns about global nutrient supply, since currently around 90% of B12 is produced in China.

Professor Martin Warren, of the School of Biosciences, said: ‘In India the problem of nutrient malnutrition exists on a vast scale, with estimates of around 1 billion people having low levels of the nutrient B12. This is a consequence not only of general malnutrition but is also due to cultural practices associated with vegetarianism, since crops have very low levels of B12.’

The researchers will aim to harness expertise in vitamin B12 metabolism at Kent, as well as Cambridge and Durham universities, with complimentary skills in process engineering at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India and clinicians at the King Edward Memorial hospital in Pune, India.

The project will also investigate whether other enriched sources of B12, in the form of algae and higher plants, can be developed. Many algae are known to be able to absorb the nutrient but only limited studies have been undertaken in order to assess whether the B12 found in algae is bioavailable to humans.

The project, entitled Enhancing cobalamin (vitamin B12) bioavailability in culturally appropriate foods in India, is being supported by the government’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). This funds cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by countries that receive Official Development Assistance (ODA).