Oilseed rape plants genetically modified to produce essential omega-3 fish oils could improve nutrition and cut the healthcare bill in the UK, say scientists.
Scientists at Rothamsted Research are experimenting with genes from marine organisms that produce omega-3 oils to test them in a variety of plants.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of our diet that protect against cardiovascular diseases and provide vital nutrients for lactating mothers that help with child development, said Maurice Moloney, Rothamsted’s director.
Speaking at Cereals 2012, Prof Moloney said inserting the right genes from marine organisms into crops, such as oilseeds and linseeds, could increase omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet and relieve the pressure on dwindling fish stocks.
“There is a non-sustainable situation developing here – we are running out of fish,” he said.
“Our suggestion to solve the sustainability problem is to look at the metabolism in these omega-3 long chain fatty acids in the native organisms – primarily micro algae, singled celled photosynthetic organisms.
“Those genes have been cloned in a variety of plant models. We could reestablish the metabolic pathway of those algae in oilseeds.
“If we do that, we can grow our oilseeds adjusted as we grow oilseeds right now.”
“There is a non-sustainable situation developing here – we are running out of fish.”
Over the next few years, Prof Moloney said Rothamsted would probably be seeking to test this technology in the field.
“It’s a legitimate experiment. It has to go out in the field in order to understand whether these things are robust enough to turn into something that can be used as a product,” he added.
Prof Moloney said the cost of crushing GM oilseeds would be no more expensive than for normal oilseeds, but the value of the oil produced would be “ten-fold higher than conventional oil”.
The oil produced from transgenic oilseeds which contain high levels of omega-3, could be produced in capsules to supplement low levels, especially in lactating mothers.
But it could also be added to yoghurts and soft drinks so that children “don’t even realise they are getting a whole dose of long chain fatty acids”, said Prof Moloney.
As part of Rothamsted’s designing seeds programme, scientists are also researching other “exciting” scientific developments, he revealed.
They are looking at complex carbohydrates in cells walls in wheat seeds that help tackle type-2 diabetes.
They are also analysing genes in willows, trees which are known for their fast growth, which could be associated with biomass accumulation in sugar cane or wheat.
Prof Moloney said transgenic plants were one part of a number of tools that could be used to address food security.
See our page on GM crops.