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Durham University

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The future of vegan supplements?

(19 February 2021)

vitamin pillson a table

Biomanufacturing will need to increase to meet the needs of a growing vegan population.

New findings could improve the biomanufacturing of a crucial vitamin that is missing from vegan diets and one which remains prohibitively expensive.

Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient which plays a role in supporting red blood cell production, energy, metabolism and nerve function, however it isn’t made or needed by plants.

Our researchers looked at ways of understanding and improving the biosynthesis of B12 by studying how enzymes obtain essential metals.

A growing vegan population

With a record 560,000 people signing up to Veganuary 2021, this important nutrient is in demand and the global transition to low-meat diets means that biomanufacturing will need to increase.

However, due to its complex molecular structure, it is currently not feasible to mass-produce by conventional chemical synthesis.

Instead, it is the only vitamin which is produced exclusively by bioproduction (culturing bacteria that naturally produce B12). This process remains inefficient and continues to be expensive for many people who need it – particularly in developing nations.

With cobalt a crucial metal in the B12 production process, our researchers worked closely with others around the UK to synthesise the vitamin.

The 'metalation calculator'

During vitamin B12 biomanufacturing, the vital element, cobalt, is supplied by a metal delivery enzyme. However, ensuring that the enzyme is supplying enough of the right metal, and not becoming clogged-up with the wrong one, remains an obstacle when producing B12 on a large scale.

To overcome the cobalt bottleneck, our team have created a ‘metalation calculator’ to understand and optimise cobalt supply for B12 to support its manufacture.

The ability of the ‘metalation calculator’ to determine the metal requirements for producing B12 on a large scale shows great promise, not only for the manufacturing of this supplement, but also in wider sustainable manufacturing processes using biotechnology.

New funding will allow the calculator to be tested widely and to be developed into easy-to-use computer applications.

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