In many developing countries, ensuring a secure supply of food with appropriate levels of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals is challenging. Deficiency of the essential micronutrient cobalamin (known as vitamin B12), for instance, is estimated to affect over 40% of the global population. Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient in human health, where severe deficiency can cause anaemia, gastrointestinal problems and neurological symptoms, including neural tube defects in the developing foetus. Mild deficiency has also been implicated in ischaemic heart disease and cognitive impairment associated with pre-senile dementia. Plants neither make nor require B12. The vitamin is made only by certain bacteria. Humans gain most of their B12 from dairy products while ruminants gain theirs from commensal enteric bacteria. Vegetarians are at particular risk of B12 deficiency, as are subsistence farmers who have a limited range of foods in their diets, and those who rely heavily on imports of processed food such as island state populations.
One way to enhance B12 status in these groups is to develop simple, low cost systems to grow and process edible microalgae enriched in B12 that can be consumed directly by humans or to enhance animal feed. Alison Smith and her group in Plant Sciences have developed methods to co-culture algae and benign bacteria certified for human consumption to deliver high amounts of the variant of B12 that is bioavailable to humans. The group is identifying locally sourced algal strains that could be developed for B12 provision and is researching whether the B12-enriched algae produced affects nutrition levels in farm animals, particularly chicken and cattle.
AlgalB12 are continuing investigations regarding the social and cultural issues that may influence the uptake of such algal products in developing countries for both human and animal consumption and are currently developing trial sites with communities willing to engage in algal cultivation, processing and consumption. The potential of algae to address a range of other challenges such as waste-water remediation and bulk biomass production are also being considered, as ways of assessing how this technology can be transferred to local populations.