Dr Mark McCann calls milk a miracle food.

And for good reason: over millions of years, it has evolved to cram all of the energy and nutrients we need in early life into one package.

"The sheer amount of growth that babies go through in the first 1000 days of life is astounding."

McCann, a senior research scientist at AgResearch, said one important part of this period was how different organs and systems developed to boost our potential for good health over a lifetime.

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"An example of this is our gut, which must very quickly adapt to good and bad bugs that we are exposed to in our environment and work effectively with our immune systems."

McCann and fellow scientists have been trying to understand how a recently-discovered and naturally-occurring part of milk, called extracellular vesicles, or EVs, could have a role in how babies grow and develop.

These EVs are one way for cells to share information with each other so they can function properly.

One type of EV the researchers are particularly interested in are exosomes, as there is evidence that those derived from milk can not only survive digestion, but potentially interact with the complex biological pathways involved in early life development.

"A useful analogy is how emails work," he said.

"If you think of the all the cells in our body as email inboxes, EVs are the emails."

"The research community has known about these EVs for a while, but we thought these biological emails were mostly spam or junk.

"It turns out that research has shown that they might actually contain useful information."

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The hard part, he said, was finding the useful emails and understanding the value of their contents.

"If we understand this, we can then look to how we could naturally enrich or supplement infant foods to ensure that their health benefits are available for mothers to give to their babies, to give them the best possible start to life."

In a new, million-dollar study bringing together experts from four New Zealand and United States universities, McCann and his colleagues want to completely reveal how milk exosomes enhance gut and immune cell development.

One of the big hurdles is identifying and isolating EVs properly to be able to study how they work.

Scientists are trying to understand how a recently-discovered and naturally-occurring part of milk, called extracellular vesicles, or EVs, could have a role in how babies grow and develop. Image / Supplied
Scientists are trying to understand how a recently-discovered and naturally-occurring part of milk, called extracellular vesicles, or EVs, could have a role in how babies grow and develop. Image / Supplied

"Our first step is to determine an efficient method to extract EVs from milk in sufficient quantities," he said.

"The next pivotal step will be determining how and what it is about these EVs using appropriate laboratory models that provides a benefit to how our gut and immune systems develop in early life.

"This is important because how these two systems co-develop in early life is thought to form the foundations of our health and potential later in life."

The project promises not just to uncover the function of these fascinating particles, but to open the door to future studies into how they might be used commercially.

"To continue the email analogy, if we can capture and read the contents of these biological emails and what their instructions mean, we unravel what it means for babies development," he said.

"Our work is very early stage, we simply do not know enough yet about milk-derived EVs and their roles in biology to appreciate their value.

"We know enough about EV biology that their potential is intriguing, but the evidence is lacking.

"Our hope is that the New Zealand-based team becomes acknowledged world leaders in this field.

"Eventually, we hope it leads to New Zealand-made products that make a difference to the future health and potential of infants."

The three-year study is being supported through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund.