Britain’s first trial of GM crops enriched with nutrients to improve health has been successfully harvested.
Following a groundbreaking field trial, the first camelina (false flax) crop genetically modified to produce seeds rich in omega-3 fatty acids was harvested at Rothamsted Research on Friday (5 September).
See also: GM omega-3 plants trial approved
The trial, sown in May, is the first field trial in the UK to test plants in which the genetic structure has been altered to produce health-boosting properties. For the experiment, genes taken from algae were inserted into the plants to make marine oils.
Project leader Johnathan Napier and his team of researchers harvested the 8x8m crop by hand at Rothamsted’s experimental field site in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.
The GM plants were cut and bagged up and removed from the field. The plant material was taken to a glasshouse on site where it will remain for one week to dry out.
The seeds will then be analysed for their omega-3 fatty acid composition. Any waste material will be removed to landfill.
“It’s a landmark step,” an emotional Prof Napier told Farmers Weekly. “It’s the first UK trial of a GM crop with a nutritional benefit trait in it.
“This is the culmination of at least a decade’s worth of fundamental research. We know that the engineered crop will produce the omega-3s in the glasshouse.
“We wanted to see whether the crop would grow well in the real world – in the field. Ultimately, that’s what we needed to demonstrate. It could be that we can use it in an agricultural scenario.
“The crop was sown very late, on 15 May. But we can see that nearly four months later it has matured and set seed with no obvious problems.”
He added: “We will do the biochemical analysis of the seed oil to confirm the presence of the fish oils. So far, everything looks promising.”
Although camelina is a “cousin” of oilseed rape, Prof Napier said crop does not cross-pollinate with rape.
“The beauty of it is, it has capsules so it does not suffer from pod shatter,” he added.
“The capsules retain the seed really well, so the crop hasn’t been sprayed off. It’s really easy to harvest.”
Next year, Prof Napier plans to double the size of the field trial and sow the crop earlier with a higher seed rate to see if it can produce even more omega-3 oils.
If the trials can be shown to be successful, then a plant-based source of fish oils would be very attractive to the fish farming industry.
Plant oil extracted from the seeds could also be used as an omega-3 supplement in yoghurts or spreads.
The GM crop could eventually be grown commercially in the UK, although that is “at least a decade away”, say researchers.
The field experiment is seeking to provide a healthy, alternative and sustainable terrestrial source of omega-3 oil, which is known to lower the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancers, and arthritis.
The results of the trial will be published after a peer review in an Open Access scientific journal later this year.