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Australian scientists developing omega-3-rich plant sources

By Shane Starling , 08-Mar-2010
Last updated the 08-Mar-2010 at 13:17 GMT

Scientists in the employ of an Australian government scientific research body have developed plant prototypes genetically modified to boost their omega-3 content beyond alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

The scientists used GM methods to mesh algae-sourced omega-3s like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) with canola plants to create the new plants, with a large-scale farm trial the next ambition.

The researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have been working under the Omega-3 Project, but results are not expected to see the commercial light of day for 10-15 years.

The Omega-3 Project is part of a CSIRO project called Food Futures Flagship which aims to add $3bn to Australia’s agrifood sector.

While the fish-oil sourced omega-3 industry disputes the environmental threat of fish farming as only a small percentage of the annual harvest is used in human nutrition, the potential for plant sources to deliver high-end omega-3 payloads has obvious cost benefits, not to mention the interest of the vegetarian market keen on the brain and heart health benefits of DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

Proof of concept

"We've got proof of concept, so what that means is we have proven a canola plant or a flax plant - an oil plant - is actually capable of making these long-chain omega 3 oils in the seed and building them up to relatively good levels," said Omega-3 Project team memberm, James Petrie, in press reports.

"What we've got to do now is take it out of the lab and onto the farm. We're hoping the plant oils that we produce sustainably from these oil seeds are going to have enough of the EPA and DHA to satisfy the growth requirements of aquaculture specifics."

The CSIRO is not alone in trying to obtain the longer chain omega-3 from plants via genetic engineering with biotech giants Monsanto, DuPont, and BASF reporting progress. Indeed, Monsanto recently published safety data for stearidonic acid-rich soybean oil.

UK and German scientists have also been working with BASF towards achieving EPA-rich rapeseed oil, but again, commercialization appears a long way off.

Researchers at Virginia Tech in the US, in collaboration with US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists, last year reported fungal treatment of biodiesel waste may provide another source of EPA, potentially within three or four years.

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