RGCB scientists unravelling the Vitamin B12 mystery

Published: 04th February 2013 12:06 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th February 2013 12:06 PM   |  A+A-

What does Vitamin B12 deficiency got to do with organic farming? A lot, finds scientists at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB), here.

Increasing Vitamin B12 deficiency among the population has been baffling science for a while now. This vitamin, most essential for maintaining a healthy body and mind, is not synthesised by plants. For the same reason, vegetarians generally tend to be deficient.

However, our vegetarian grandmothers and grandfathers never suffered this deficiency.

“To explain this conundrum, we conjectured that they could have got it from the food they ate, especially the vegetables,” said R Ajaykumar, who along with T R Kannan, E V Soniya and M Radhakrishna Pillai had conducted the study.

Just like plants, even animals are unable to synthesise vitamin B12. But certain bacteria can do this job - bacteria that reside in the gut of ruminants such as cow, goat and sheep. But how did the vegetarians in the older generation get access to this?, was the million dollar question.

The scientists, on a hunch, decided to test the cow dung for the presence of the vitamin and it turned out to be positive. New experiments were designed and dung samples were collected from cows reared with different food habits - one group predominantly fed on fresh grass, one on dried hay and the last group on synthetic commercial feed.

Maximum amount of the vitamin was found in cows fed on green grass while in others it was less by about 75 percent.

This explained one major cause for the deficiency. Green grass is hard to find and cows fed on green grass even more harder to find. Obviously the deficiency, even among non-vegetarians, was bound to go up.

The next perplexing question was how the green grass could have so much of vitamin B12, especially since the grass cannot synthesise it. Would it have been contaminated with vitamin B12-rich cow dung or would it have absorbed the vitamin from the soil already contaminated with dung?

The scientific team at RGCB grew ‘cheera’ plants in tissue culture and found that the plants grown in glass beakers could absorb the vitamin B12 from the growth medium provided. They also found that the vitamin was found accumulated in portions of the plants that are consumed.

“So we assume that this is what happens in the soil too, under natural conditions. After our field studies, we will come to a final answer,” said Ajayakumar.

Long ago, in our villages, plants were generally fertilised with cow dung. The natural contamination of soil with the dung from grazing cows or by human application of the same as manure would have given the plants enough Vitamin B12.

If the plants had enough Vitamin B12, so would the vegetarians.

 “This calls for an introspection on the current system of vegetable cultivation. Organic farming is probably one of the cheap and best ways to solve the problem of vitamin B12 deficiency in our country” said RGCB director M Radhakrishna Pillai.

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