Canola researchers in omega-3 breakthrough
GroundCover™ Issue: 111 | Author: Dr Gio Braidotti
New canola varieties being developed in Australia look capable of producing the highly coveted, high-value long-chain omega-3 oil
Australia has taken the lead in the development of new GM canola lines that produce long-chain (LC) omega-3 oils.
These are the oils in increasing demand for their human health properties and as a feed additive in the world’s rapidly growing fish-farming industries.
The Australian research has effectively succeeded in extending canola’s existing short form of omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) into the LC varieties – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – that are normally sourced, via fish, from marine plants.
It is a significant scientific development that has the potential to shift the sourcing of these important omega-3 health oils from marine plants to a terrestrial crop. This is expected to ease the heavy worldwide pressure on fish stocks.
The research has been a collaboration between the GRDC, CSIRO and Nuseed. At CSIRO, the project is being led by Dr Surinder Singh and coordinated by Dr James Petrie.
Dr Petrie credits a large part of the team’s world-leading position to a CSIRO research ethos that has been very end-point focused. This encouraged an acceleration of the development phase by using a method that allows many gene combinations (for oil production) to be tested more efficiently.
“We have been able to determine much more rapidly than our competitors how to put together all the genes we need into a single combination,” Dr Petrie says.
Dr Singh says that in glasshouse trials over three seasons – a comparatively short timeframe – the germplasm developed at CSIRO achieved levels of DHA in the canola oil comparable to levels found in bulk fish oil.
“These glasshouse trials are now ready to move to field trials, to test the technology under field conditions, and begin the process of selecting the best combination of agronomic performance and DHA oil levels,” Dr Singh says.
Nuseed will manage the field trials and subsequent commercialisation, and if the project is successful will bring LC omega-3 canola varieties to market.
Dr Malcolm Devine at Nuseed says the project’s ultimate goal is to make Australia the first and foremost global supplier of DHA-containing canola oil, therefore creating valuable new markets for Australian growers.
“Post-farmgate, we intend the grain to be processed into oil in Australia, targeting a number of potential markets. These could include dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals and DHA-rich aquafeed markets,” Dr Devine says.
However, as successful as the research has been to this point, he says commercialisation is still several years away: “We have seen some very interesting and positive results so far, and taking the material into the field is the next step.”
The field trials have been approved by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. The trials will allow the canola to be evaluated for agronomic performance, LC omega-3 content and genetic stability under field conditions – all important factors in achieving commercialisation.
While being aware that GM food crops can be controversial with the public, the project partners all say that few feasible alternative supply options exist for this particular nutrient and there is a compelling need for a sustainable source given EPA and DHA’s health benefits.
Unlike previously released GM canola varieties, the DHA trait is an example of an ‘output trait’, meaning it is designed to provide benefits to consumers. This differs to existing ‘input traits’ that provide agronomic benefit to growers.
While uptake of input traits – primarily herbicide and pest resistance – has become commonplace, GM output traits globally are still finding their way through the R&D pipeline.
“I think the sustainability and environmental credentials of the crop are significant factors supporting the use of GM technology in this particular application,” Dr Petrie says.
“When you do the calculations, if you can achieve 12 per cent levels of DHA in the canola oil, then one hectare of this crop can meet the same production levels produced by 10,000 ocean fish. And we couldn’t have achieved this using conventional plant breeding methods.”
Dr Ron Osmond, the GRDC’s manager for commercial technology delivery, says the GM canola system is already well established in Australia. “It has worked quite well so far. So the same principles around high-quality stewardship and identity preservation would be expected for the DHA-producing canola when it is commercialised.”
Overall, Dr Osmond and Dr Devine say that the potential for commercialisation is strong and the science developed by CSIRO is robust and thorough.
“Technically and scientifically it has been a world-class achievement,” Dr Osmond says. “I think it’s a great example of public sector and private sector working together towards a new technology with a profitable outcome for Australian growers.”
More information:Dr Ron Osmond,
0400 002 640,
GRDC Project Code CSP00145
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