Scientists have found a way to genetically modify seeds of Camelina sativa, or false flax, plants to contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are typically found in fatty, oily fish like salmon and are essential for the human body.
Currently, despite popular belief, fish themselves aren’t the source of fish oil; the algae that the fish consume are. The scientists hope that by modifying this plant they will be able to provide a more “environmentally friendly” source of fish oil. “What’s not realized generally is that fish don’t make these oils themselves,” Colin Lazarus of Bristol University, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News. He continued, “Genetic modification and sustainability are clearly not mutually exclusive.”
The study was published in the journal Plant. “One of the problems with the current supplies of fish oils is that fish stocks are a diminishing natural resource,” Dr. Johnathan Napier, the associate director at Rothamsted Research, told BBC News. “What we’re trying to do here is provide an alternative, sustainable source of fish oils.” Since many of the fish we eat are bred outside of the natural environment, farmers must fill their feed with fish oil to make sure consumers are getting the nutrients they need. Only algae and fish provide long-chain forms of omega-3 — docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — which is why turning to nuts, seeds, and vegetables for omega-3s wouldn’t be enough.
In the summary of the study, the authors explained that previously, attempts to genetically modify “plant sources of omega-3” had “proved problematic.” In their study, they found that the genes they adjusted were able to synthesize fatty acids in the seed oil of the plant, “while simultaneously avoiding accumulation of undesirable intermediate fatty acids.”
The oil produced by the modified plant seeds was inserted into salmon feed to test whether the oil’s properties are similar to the oils that are normally incorporated into the feed. “There isn’t enough fish meal and fish oil being produced in the world to sustain the great increase we’re seeing in aquaculture production,” Douglas Tocher of the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, told BBC News. “The beauty and great breakthrough is that we are now looking at an alternative to fish oil. The conventional vegetable oils are good at feeding fish but do not supply the long-chain omega-3 that we require fish to have in order for them to be a nutritionally high quality product.”
Fish Oil And Health: Why It’s Important
Though fish oil has been touted as being healthy for the heart, as well as a way to fight cancer and other chronic disorders, some recent studies have pointed out that taking fish oil supplements are useless or that they cause prostate cancer. But perhaps it’s not about whether fish oil is healthy or not — we know it’s indeed important for our bodies to consume omega-3s, but the question is how we obtain it.
“How food, and its component molecules, affect the body is largely a mystery,” Dr. Howard LeWine, chief medical editor of Internet publishing at Harvard Health Publications, wrote. “That makes the use of supplements for anything other than treating a deficiency questionable.” He notes that fish oil on its own, in the supplement form, isn’t enough to become a substitute to eating fish or other wholesome foods that contain omega-3s, such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and soy oil. Only if your doctor has prescribed you fish oil due to a deficiency of omega-3s or high blood triglyceride levels does taking fish oil supplements seem reasonable, LeWine wrote. Eating moderate amounts of fish and eating an overall balanced diet will provide a much better way to prevent omega-3 deficiency rather than simply taking supplements and not eating properly.
As for the authors of the recent study, they will continue researching whether their genetically-modified plant-extracted fish oil can become a substitute for regular fish oils. “Ultimately we think it could be really useful as a contribution to human health and nutrition as an alternative source of fish oils, but that’s something that needs to be tested and evaluated by the appropriate regulators,” Napier told BBC News. “It’s still an experiment, it’s a very big experiment but at the moment there’s no possibility this is going to enter the human food chain.”