How AI is bringing the ‘dark matter of nutrition’ to light, unlocking the power of plants

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jim Flatt, CEO & Co-founder, Brightseed


  • Humans lack a molecular understanding of plants and do not fully understand their nutritional potential.
  • Emerging technologies, such as AI and machine learning, are helping us see and understand the full power of plants to improve health and wellness outcomes.
  • Mapping the extensive world of phytonutrients and improving nutrition policy and research will lead to better health outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just transform how we work and communicate. It also accelerated the need for more proactive health measures for chronic health problems tied to diet. Such problems have emerged as a top risk factor for coronavirus and people with poor metabolic health accounted for half of COVID-19 hospitalizations in some regions around the world. The resulting high numbers led the authors of a report in The Lancet to issue a call for more resources to tackle metabolic health to avoid needless deaths.

Thankfully, new tools have been developed to offer comprehensive understanding of nutrition. This expertise and technology won’t just help us tackle metabolic health – it could help us finally fully realize the power of plants to improve health and wellness outcomes.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Untapped potential

We know that plants are critical for health, but do not fully understand why. Humans have not mapped the breadth of what plants offer, nor have we pinpointed the specific biological mechanisms of action triggered in our bodies when we eat them. This knowledge gap exists at the molecular level, with a need to understand how phytonutrients – tiny plant molecules with anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective and neuroprotective properties – work in our bodies. In fact, the scientific community refers to the vast world of phytonutrients as the “dark matter of nutrition” because less than 1% of these molecules have been catalogued to date. The opportunity to learn more about phytonutrients and further tangibly connect their impact to health is massive.

Leveraging technology

Technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, are helping researchers learn more about the biological connections between plants and humans. For instance, Brightseed has created a powerful artificial intelligence called Forager™, which coupled with advanced metabolomics instrumentation, systematically identifies unknown plant compounds and predicts their likely roles in human health. Thus far, the technology has predicted beneficial phytonutrients for many important health conditions.

Recently, in collaboration with leading biomedical researchers, Brightseed discovered a powerful phytonutrient with the potential to improve metabolic health. This phytonutrient helps restore proper function of a central metabolic regulator, including maintaining healthy lipid and sugar levels in the bloodstream and key organs such as the liver, whose function is impaired by a poor diet. Brightseed will start clinical studies on this phytonutrient before the end of this year.

The impact of this discovery could be wide reaching and have profound implications for more than two billion people worldwide at elevated risk of chronic metabolic diseases. Elevated levels of fat in the liver (which are directly caused by chronic overeating) afflict between 25% and 30% of the global population. These individuals with fatty liver disease are 57% more likely to die prematurely and much more like to develop other debilitating metabolic diseases, including diabetes. The discovery of this phytonutrient is a glimpse into the positive change deeper nutritional understanding could bring.

 

The opportunity ahead

Just as 1918 pandemic led to creation of the modern medicine industry, we now are at a similar tipping point with nutrition, on the precipice of developing a much more complete understanding of how plants are connected to human health.

The first step is improving our foundational knowledge. In the U.S., there is a broad-based effort among leading academic, non-profit and industry stakeholders to create a National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) to accelerate nutrition science and uncover the role of human nutrition in improving public health and reducing disease. The NIN, similar to institutes that exist in other countries, can support and incentivize higher-quality, more rigorous nutrition research at the molecular level. This research will provide a stronger foundation for nutrition recommendations and guidelines, which is essential to developing consensus in both the scientific and consumer communities.

The second step is a mindset shift. Modern food and agricultural systems have largely focused on – and solved – the problem of food insufficiency. However, preventable diet-driven chronic diseases have emerged instead. We need to pivot from merely increasing the supply of food to leveraging technologies that can help improve the nutritional quality of what we consume.

“We need to pivot from merely increasing the supply of food to leveraging technologies that can help improve the nutritional quality of what we consume.”

—Jim Flatt, Brightseed

Healthier food options can be the center of a new proactive health industry and provide the food industry the opportunity to make important contributions to health and longevity, while benefiting economically from the capture of existing healthcare investment that currently is directed to treating chronic disease. Our current treatment-focused healthcare system is increasingly unaffordable and poorly suited to addressing the needs of individuals at heightened risk of developing chronic diseases that are largely preventable through lifestyle modifications, especially those related to diet.

No changes will be possible without forging new collaborations between public and private entities. Through cooperation we can develop more nutritious options and greatly influence policy change. Partnerships are also how we’ll create a more nourished world and maximize our impact.

For the first time, we have the tools to explore the plant kingdom at the molecular level and answer questions such as “How does what we eat really affect us?” or “How can food become medicine?”

Technology is exponentially improving our understanding of how plants are connected to health. Together, we can goal shift the healthcare model from one squarely focused on treatment of disease to one that promotes health and natural resilience.

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