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Sliced bread just got better

Watch video about undergraduate iGEM team's VitaYeast project »

Growing up in Bombay, India, Arjun Khakhar witnessed malnutrition devastate his community. With a team of fellow Johns Hopkins University undergraduates, Khakhar hopes to save lives by addressing this global issue using synthetic biology.

"The major problem in developing countries right now is not that people are hungry and starving because they don't have enough food," said Khakhar, a junior biomedical engineering major, in the Whiting School of Engineering. "What people don't have now is the food that they need to survive. Vital nutrients like vitamins are just missing from their diets because they can't afford fruits and vegetables."

To address this enormous challenge, the team started small. Really small. The students began with yeast, a single-cell microbe, that if coaxed into producing beta carotene, could be baked into bread rich in vitamin A. They call the product VitaYeast.

The team was brought together to compete in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which challenges students to use synthetic biology to manipulate DNA into carrying out new tasks. The students conduct their research in the lab of the School of Medicine's Jef Boeke, a leading yeast expert who is a professor of molecular biology and genetics, and worked with 10 faculty advisors from engineering and arts and sciences.

"One of the great things about iGEM teams, which are mostly made up of undergraduates, is that those students, frankly, will not believe that something is impossible," Boeke said. "If you tell them that something is impossible, they will go off and do it. I find that to be very exciting."

After successfully altering the yeast and producing their enhanced dough, the students purchased a small bread machine to test the results. Research shows that people reject genetically engineered foods that didn't look, smell or taste like something familiar, so the ultimate test is to produce a recognizable loaf of bread using VitaYeast.

The initial results are promising. While the bread cannot be consumed, because genetically modified food must undergo testing by federal regulators, the appearance, texture and smell replicate that of bread made with packaged yeast.

"VitaYeast is a tiny component—it gets killed in the bread," said Noah Young, a senior biomedical engineering major. "We're not genetically modifying the wheat. We're not genetically modifying the flour or the water. We're genetically modifying something like 1 percent of the bread recipe. When you bake VitaYeast bread and you look at it, it looks like normal bread."

But the implications are profound—the bread has the potential to help avert health problems that occur when diets lack essential vitamins and other nutrients. The World Health Organization has described vitamin A deficiency as the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.

Regardless of how the project performs at the iGEM competition finals in November, members of the team say they will continue to tout their enhanced bread as a simple way to help hundreds of thousands of people suffering from malnutrition around the world. Such aspirations may seem bold for a group of students yet to pick up a diploma. But Khakhar doesn't think so.

"How do I get the idea in my mind that I want to change the world?" he said. "I would ask, How can you not have the idea that you want to change the world?"

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