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New molecular farming vegetables could be alternative to marine fatty acids

19/05/2004 - English University researchers have created a transgenic vegetable with high levels of healthy fatty acids, normally found only in fish and poultry products.

Dr Colin Lazarus and his team at Bristol University, England, engineered a new strain of Arabidopsis by adding two genes from algae and a third from a fungus.
They report in Nature Biotechnology online (16 May doi:10.1038/nbt972) that this led to substantial quantities of two very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, arachidonic acid (ARA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), in the plant.

It is believed to be the first time that these fats have been produced in plants through molecular farming, setting out the way for future genetic engineering and development of vegetables with added nutriceutical type health benefits in the future.

EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid, the class of fats shown to have a major benefit to human health. They have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, relieve the symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, fight depression and may also protect against Alzheimer's.

ARA, an omega-6 fat found in meat, eggs and milk, is also important for mental health and is a precursor to a group of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids, which impact immunity, blood clotting and other vital functions in the body.

However both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have to be obtained from our diet and most of their sources are animal- or fish-derived. Transgenic plants could offer a better source of the fats for vegetarians.

The modified plants are also described as “a breakthrough in the search for alternative sustainable sources of fish oils”. With fish stocks declining, and concerns over high levels of toxins, such as those used in many fish farms to control pests like sea lice;- chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, molecular biotech crops could provide a safer and more sustainable source of omega fatty acids.

And according to the scientists, the genes could be added to many other plants.

"Any plants with green tissue, they all have the potential to produce these long-chain fatty acids," co-researcher Dr Baoxiu Qi told BBC News Online.

"If we try to increase the omega-3 fatty acids in a plant, a good source would be linseed; and for the omega-6, I think rapeseed would be quite good, or soya," he added.