Better formula by editing tobacco genes

The problem: For many parents, breast milk is not an option for feeding their infants. They can turn to formula, but it lacks the hundreds of complex sugars that help babies build their gut bacteria, which is key to developing their immune system.

The solution: Biologists genetically altered a plant called Nicotiana benthamiana — a close relative of commercial tobacco plants — to create human sugars instead of plant ones. While the genetically modified plant was only able to make 11 of the 200 complex sugars found in breast milk, this is the first time sugars from all major groups were covered. The result also included one compound that plays a key role in fighting respiratory and gastrointestinal infections but cannot be mass-produced in a lab.

What’s next: Besides putting the sugars into formula to make it healthier, formula could also become more affordable, as the study posits that using sugars from plants could also be more economical than making them in labs.