New research aims to find solution for vitamin B12 gap in vegan diets

A mum and daughter preparing a plant-based meal

Scientists at Norwich Research Park are working on an affordable and sustainable process to produce vitamin B12, an essential micronutrient which is absent in plant-based diets - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

January is the month when hundreds of thousands of people celebrate the benefits of a plant-based diet as part of the Veganuary campaign. We find out how scientists at Norwich Research Park are helping to ensure a vegan diet is good for the environment and people’s health. 

With a record 560,000 people reportedly having signed up to Veganuary last year, it is expected that this number will have grown for this January’s commitment to a vegan diet as a way of protecting the environment, preventing animal suffering, and improving the health of millions of people. 

However, one drawback of a purely plant-based diet is the absence of vitamin B12. But findings from new research conducted by the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park and Durham University have potentially discovered the answer to manufacturing this vital vitamin in an affordable and sustainable way for the first time. 

Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient which plays a key role in supporting the production of red blood cells and DNA. It also helps with the function and development of brain and nerve cells. However, it is neither made, nor required by plants.  

A bowl of vegan food containing baked vegetables, avocado, tofu and buckwheat buddha

While a vegan diet is generally considered a healthy option, the absence of vitamin B12 means scientists are working on an affordable and sustainable synthetic alternative - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Vitamin B12 is now in high demand due to the increase in the number of people adopting low-meat or wholly plant-based diets. It means that the biomanufacturing of the vitamin will need to increase significantly. However, due to its complex molecular structure, it is currently not feasible to mass-produce using conventional methods because the manufacturing process is prohibitively expensive.  

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

Prof Martin Warren has led the Quadram Institute’s participation in this ground-breaking research that could help alleviate the vitamin B12 insufficiency and provide an affordable basis for future vegan supplements. 

Prof Warren worked with the team at Durham University to better understand and improve the biosynthesis of B12 by studying how enzymes obtain essential metals. Cobalt is a crucial metal in the B12 production process which is supplied by a metal delivery enzyme. A major challenge when producing vitamin B12 on a large scale is ensuring that this enzyme is supplying enough of the right metal, and not becoming clogged-up with the wrong one. 

Prof Martin Warren from Quadram Institute

Prof Martin Warren from Quadram Institute has been working on ground-breaking research that could help alleviate the vitamin B12 insufficiency in vegan diets - Credit: Quadram Institute

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Prof Warren said: “Understanding more about cobalt delivery not only helps improve the biosynthetic process but it also means that the cobalt is used more efficiently, reducing the environmental pollution.” 

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

They found that by understanding the mechanism that distributes vital metals, it became possible to produce a calculator which industrial biotechnologists can use to optimise their manufacturing operations. The calculator has already been tested in the production of vitamin B12 and it is hoped that it will be adopted by biotechnology manufacturers to help foster a more sustainable future. 

Prof Warren summarised: “The UK is suffering a serious vitamin B12 shortage, so it is important that the nutrient is made more available in an affordable manner. Our studies are not only investigating how B12 synthesis can be improved but at the same time they are looking at how we can reduce the levels of cobalt that are used in the process, since cobalt by itself is toxic.” 

New funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will allow the calculator to be tested widely and developed into easy-to-use computer applications. This will help to fast-track the production of vitamin B12 so that as vegan and plant-based diets grow, people will be able to access it in an affordable and sustainable way.