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The challenge

Our reliance on fish stocks for omega-3

Nutritionists have recognised the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for many years. Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are considered 'healthy oils'. Docosa-hexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 oil and a key structural component of cellular membranes in the human body. It is vital for early childhood growth and, in particular, brain and eye development. It can also reduce blood pressure and the risk of coronary heart disease as well as stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory disease and asthma.

DHA and other long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are made by lower plant forms, including marine plants like microalgae. Some land-based plants, like flaxseed, can produce short-chain omega-3 oils, but are unable to produce the more beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA.

Land-based plants are unable to produce the beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA. ©  Siobhan Duffy

The awareness of their health benefits and inclusion in diets – either as supplements or used to fortify processed foods – has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Fish, the world's primary source of dietary omega-3 oils, do not create their own DHA, they acquire DHA when they eat microalgae. Fish accumulate high levels of DHA, which in turn can be consumed by humans as a source of DHA. As demand for omega-3 oils continues to grow faster than can be sustainably supplied from wild fish stocks, the race is on to find potential new sources which can satisfy burgeoning consumer demand.

Our response

Long chain omega-3 from canola

The production of plants containing industrially-relevant amounts of these marine-type oils has been a long-standing goal of bioengineers.

Using gene technology, our scientists transferred the ability to produce long chain omega-3 oils from lower plants (the marine microalgae that fish consume) into canola, the world's second largest and Australia's largest oilseed crop. This involved introducing a set of eight transgenes which extended canola's short-chain omega-3 synthesis pathway all the way to marine-type EPA and DHA fatty acids. It is the most complex piece of metabolic engineering so far achieved in plants.

The oil profile in the new canola type has excellent DHA levels and a desirably high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

By being able to produce long chain omega-3 oils in canola we are developing a nutrient that is important for human health in a sustainable plant resource.

We have shown that it is possible to produce canola oils containing the same long chain omega-3 oils found in fish oil, and at levels that are commercially viable.

The results

Partnering to commercialise long chain omega-3 canola

Omega-3 canola will provide new opportunities for improving human nutrition, reducing pressure on fishery resources worldwide, and will provide Australian grain growers with new, high-value crops. © 

In 2011 we joined forces with the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and Nuseed (a wholly owned subsidiary of Nufarm Ltd) to further develop long chain omega-3 canola for commercialisation.

In February 2018 the Australian Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) announced omega-3 canola has been approved for cultivation and use in animal feed. Food uses of the Omega-3 canola have been reviewed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FASANZ) with approval granted for sale and use in food in Australia and New Zealand. In addition, omega-3 canola also received USDA deregulation approval for cultivation in the USA in 2018.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) provided financial support to assist in the development of the technology to make the production of the special canola possible and Nuseed is managing global commercialisation.

Ultimately, this research will provide growers with an exciting new variety for domestic and international grain markets.

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