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GM omega-3? UK could see GM 'fish oil' trial this year

By Nathan Gray+

24-Jan-2014
Last updated on 24-Jan-2014 at 15:48 GMT2014-01-24T15:48:53Z

Rothamsted Research has submitted an application to the UK government requesting permission to carry out a field trial for genetically modified plants that are rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

The UK-based agricultural research station has applied to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for permission to carry out a GM field trial involving Camelina plants that accumulate omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

If approved the trial could commence on the Rothamsted Farm later this year, and would run until 2017, according to Rothamsted.

"Plant sources of omega-3, e.g. Flax seed, do not produce EPA and DHA; instead they produce shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids such as a-linolenic acid (ALA)," explained Professor Johnathan Napier, lead scientist of the Rothamsted Research project.

"Not all omega-3 fatty acids are equivalent," he said. "We used synthetic gene sequences involved in the biosynthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs that have been optimised in order to be functional in Camelina plants. These synthetic sequences are based on the sequence of genes found in photosynthetic marine organisms, and other lower eukaryote species such as mosses and oomycetes.”

Backed by strategic funding from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the team have developed Camelina plants that accumulate omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) in their seeds.

The purpose of the proposed trial is to evaluate in the field the performance of the new traits in real world conditions after successful testing in the lab and glass house.

GM omega-3

Given recent suggestions that demand for omega-3s for both human consumption and aquaculture may soon outstrip supply, industry has been investigating new ways to increase supply - including the use of algae and the possibility of utilising GM plant technology.

“The challenge of producing food in a sustainable way, while minimising effects on the environment, is of great importance and we must explore a variety of tools and technologies that could help us to tackle it," said Professor Melanie Welham, science director of the BBSRC. " This new trial will help researchers to investigate one such tool in a realistic field environment so that scientific evidence can inform future decisions on how best to meet the needs of a growing population.”

Professor Martin Parry, acting director of Rothamsted Research added that carrying out a field experiment will be the only way to assess the viability of a solution.

“We have produced three varieties of plants one where four synthetic genes have been introduced into the plant, one that five genes have been introduced in the plant and one that seven synthetic genes have been introduced into the plant. The reason why we needed to introduce this number of synthetic genes is that the synthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs requires multi-step processes. In order to achieve maximum production of these oils in the seed of Camelina plants we had to help the internal biosynthetic machinery of the plant to shift from ALA towards the production of EPA and DHA”,  Napier explained.

The UK Secretary of State will place information on this proposed GMO release on a public register within 12 days of his receipt of the application. The public register can be inspected by contacting the DEFSA GM Team. The Secretary of State will also consider any representations made relating to any risks of damage to the environment posed by the release of the genetically modified organisms.

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