Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to human health. Among their many benefits, these oils can help preserve eye and brain health, as well as reduce our risk for heart disease. The problem is, we typically get omega-3s from fish or fish-oil supplements, which promotes overfishing and threatens the delicate ecosystems of the world’s oceans.
Fortunately, crop biotechnology is beginning to take pressure off our vulnerable oceans. The ultimate source of omega-3s is the algae that fish consume, not the fish themselves. As a result, scientists can take the relevant genes from algae and insert them into oilseed crops like canola. These genetically modified plants have been approved in Australia and the US for use as food and animal feed, greatly reducing the amount fish we need to harvest for omega-3 production. According to one estimate, a single hectare of this GMO canola could produce the same amount of DHA oil (an omega-3 found in salmon and anchovies) that can be extracted from 10,000 one-kilogram fish.
On this episode of Talking Biotech, Dr. Surinder Singh, a scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), joins geneticist Kevin Folta to discuss the sustainability benefits of GMO-derived plant oils. While Singh’s laboratory has been working to improve our access to omega-3s for nutritional purposes, the researchers also see bioengineered plant oils as a potential green energy source. These plant-derived oils can provide an affordable, sustainable supply of lubricants and greases used in a variety of industries, reducing our dependence on petroleum-based oils.
Vegetable-based lubricants have been used for many decades, but they require expensive chemical modifications to make them suitable for use at high temperatures. Advancements in biotechnology now allow scientists to modify plants, including canola, soybean, safflower and sunflower, to produce naturally stable oils that perform well at the high temperatures required by industry. Singh explains the remarkable progress that’s made this possible.
Dr. Surinder Singh is an expert in plant oils at CSIRO, the Australian National Research Laboratory.
The Talking Biotech podcast, produced by Kevin Folta, is available for listening or subscription: