Scientists have found a way to genetically engineer the goodness of fish oil in a widely used plant oil

There are alternatives.
There are alternatives.
Image: Flickr/Joy Weinberg under CC-BY 2.0
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Fish oil became a popular supplement after its ingredients, especially omega-3 fatty acids, were linked to benefits such as improved heart health and sharper cognition. The health craze took off at the same time as the rapid increase of fish consumption across the world: We now consume twice as much fish per capita as we did in the 1960s.

Scientists have been keen to find vegetarian, conservation-minded ways of fulfilling our demand for omega-3 fatty acids, without having to rely on fish. According to a new study published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers at Dow AgroSciences have found one such alternative. They have genetically engineered canola, a type of rapeseed oil, to produce additional omega-3 fatty acids.

Even though we get a lot of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and some from meat, those animals don’t actually produce them. It’s the plankton that fish eat and the grass that animals eat that produce omega-3 fatty acids. The fatty acids accumulate in the animals, thus making them rich sources of the nutrient.

Researchers at Dow wanted to exploit this fact. So they took genes of a microalgae, a type of plankton known to produce omega-3 fatty acids, and added them to canola plants. The resulting seeds contained as much as 200 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids in a single tablespoon of oil. Previous efforts at enabling plants to produce omega-3 fatty acids have been successful, but they haven’t been able to produce commercially viable amounts.

“This approach allows the engineered seeds to produce additional fatty acids instead of just converting existing fatty acids into polyunsaturated fatty acids, a strategy used in earlier efforts,” explains Kan Wang of Iowa State University. ”Finally, an omega-3 enriched salad dressing can be expected from grocery stores, if it is approved by regulatory agencies.”