Omega-3 fatty oils, mainly derived from fish, are essential for nutrition. The problem is that there’s not enough fish to satisfy the dietary needs of a growing human population (and obviously not everyone likes seafood).
Virginia Ursin of Monsanto’s Biotechnology Prospecting Team believes that her company can offer a solution: soybeans. Addressing a recent gathering of industry representatives and academics at the recently concluded SEED (Synthetic Biology, Engineering, Evolution and Design) conference in Boston, she described how researchers succeeded in manipulating the genetic composition of the soybean to produce a substitute for omega-3 oil. “Soybeans were chosen because they are sustainable and land-based.”
Although the Monsanto research is relatively recent, the genetic modification of soybeans goes back to 1996.
Synthetic biology — the technology employed to create this new soybean — is an interdisciplinary marriage of biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics and electrical engineering. Indeed, synbio researchers habitually appropriate an engineering vocabulary to describe what they do: building circuits, assembling DNA parts, and engineering bacteria.
To engineer the soybean, researchers in Ursin’s group replaced its natural oil – 20 percent of the bean by weight – with stearidonic acid (SDA), which is rich in omega-3 oil. The use of SDA has been approved by the FDA for food and beverages. Ursin portrays the result of this work as a kind of a win-win situation since the new soybeans can provide a reliable supply of omega-3 oils while at the same time contributing to the sustainability of the world’s oceans. Presumably, it’s also a win for Monsanto.
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