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How Fish Oil Can Be Sourced From Weeds

07/19/2015 11:52 EDT | Updated 07/19/2016 05:59 EDT
by sharaff via Getty Images

Long before the health movement became popular, fish oil was recognized as a healthy part of a nutritious diet. The actual benefit didn't really become known until the 1970s when ingestion of these oils apparently led to better cardiovascular health. Within a few decades, the oil (as well as the fish itself) was suggested as a means to keep heart disease at bay.

Today, we know of several chemicals contained within the oil that improve our health. Some of the best are the omega-3 fatty acids. They have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and have been associated with lower risk for a variety of chronic diseases. Several dietary recommendations now suggest adding these molecules to ensure a more general sense of wellness throughout life. In this light, fish oil should be a part of any grocery list. These acids are also recommended as supplements in animal feed as they also help the health of livestock.

But there are problems with mass consumption of fish oil. Fish stocks are declining meaning there is less available. There's also more pollution in the water meaning the potential for contamination with chemicals such as mercury increases. This has caused a squeeze on the availability of this precious substance. Fish farming has helped to reduce the pressure on meat availability but this hasn't helped improve the oil situation. It's because fish cannot make the oil themselves; they have to eat it in order to store it.

This latter point has been the focus of many studies to identify where exactly these omega-3 fatty acids are made. In the 1980s, the answer was revealed to be algae. These microscopic progenitors of plants can make these molecules in high enough quantities to feed all the fish and pass on these beneficial oils. As such, fish apparently played a biological middleman.

While this might seem to open the door to remove fish altogether from the production of these fatty acids, reliance on algae hasn't been as easy as once believed. While their production can be achieved, the cost of extraction and purification from contaminants -- such as toxins -- makes the practice difficult to upscale. In essence, while this route may be an option, it may not be cost-effective to help everyone.

But there is another option thanks to a group of U.K. researchers. Last week, they demonstrated how fish oil can be made not in the sea, but on land, in a plant. Their results not only suggested a novel means to increase the supply of omega-3 fatty acids, but also a possible route for making the chemicals everywhere on the planet.

The team first looked at a variety of algae and identified several proteins responsible for the production of these fatty acids. Then, they cloned the genes responsible for these proteins and assembled them in the lab. This eliminated the need for the algae and they were put to the side.

With the algae out of the picture, the next step was to put the oil-making pathway into a plant. They chose the weed false flax. It's incredibly hardy in most climates, grows incredibly well and does not cross-pollinate with other crops. It made for the perfect recipient. The process involved putting the genes into the flowers prior to turning to seed with the hope the genes would end up in the seeds and eventually in the growing plant. The experiment worked perfectly as the seeds retained the genes and then grew without any difficulties.

Though they had effectively engineered an omega-3 fatty acid producer, they still had to test the plant to be sure. When the seedlings matured, they were tested for the various oils produced. Normally, false flax makes very little omega-3 fatty acids but in this new strain, the levels were between 15 to 20 per cent of all the oils found. No other process was changed meaning the plant was exactly the same as before in every other sense.

The final stage of the study was to actually grow the false flax as a crop. This was actually the easiest step. The weed grew as expected and was easily harvested. The plants were chock full of the fatty acid, which could easily be extracted. In essence, they had developed a quick, easy, and cost effective means to make omega-3 fatty acids en masse.

For the researchers, this marked the beginning of a revolution for health as they now had the blueprint for wide spread production of omega-3 fatty acids worldwide. But the results also offered a roadmap to responsible genetic engineering. The concept of a genetically modified organism is still anathema in many minds. Yet, these results demonstrate it can be accomplished in a manner that does not alter the normal behaviour of a plant and be physiologically neutral. As our natural stocks of fish declines, this indeed may be the best way to move forward to improve health and maintain wellness for all.

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