The Canberra based members of the Food Futures Flagship team that developed plants with DHA in their seeds. From left to right, Dr Surinder Singh, Dr Xue-Rong Zhou and Dr Qing Liu.
Omega-3 oils in grains
In a world first, Food Futures Flagship has developed plants that produce DHA, a healthy omega-3 oil component that is vital for human health and normally only available from fish sources.
1 June 2005 | Updated 10 January 2012
This breakthrough is an important first step towards:
improving human nutrition
reducing pressure on declining fish resources worldwide
providing Australian grain growers with new high-value crops.
DHA - an omega-3 healthy oil
Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are considered 'healthy oils'. Docosa-hexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is favoured for its health benefits.
DHA is found in every cell membrane in the body and is vital for brain and eye development in infants. It is also now widely recognised for its ability to reduce:
Nutritional authorities recommend a daily intake of at least 500 mg of long-chain omega-3 including DHA, yet dietary surveys show that most Australians consume only a tenth of this amount.
The breakthrough is a step towards improving human nutrition, reducing pressure on declining fish resources and providing new high-value crops.
New sources of DHA
In test plants, CSIRO has shown that land-based plants can make their own DHA when they have the necessary genes.
The Food Futures team has placed DHA producing genes into a land plant. The resultant plant successfully produced DHA in its own seeds.
Traditional sources of DHA
DHA and other long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are made by lower plant forms, including marine plants like microalgae.
Fish do not create their own DHA, they acquire DHA when they eat microalgae. Fish accumulate high levels of DHA, which in turn can be consumed by humans as a source of DHA.
Higher level plants that grow on land do not have the same ability to produce DHA as the lower plants. Some land plants can make other types of omega-3, namely short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, but these are not as useful in the human diet as the long-chain fatty omega-3 fatty acids like DHA.
Many foods are now enriched with omega-3 oils from fish, but with declining natural fish stocks, and aquaculture's current reliance on fish-based feeds, additional sources of long-chain omega-3 oils are urgently needed.
Although it will be some years before commercialisation, crop plants capable of producing useful levels of DHA in their own seeds would have many benefits.
DHA enriched crop plants could provide consumers with cheaper and more varied sources of DHA – particularly valuable to those with fish allergies or who, because of cost, availability or choice, don't have a high level of fish consumption in their diet.
Demand on natural fish stocks as a source of DHA would be less. Fish in aquaculture could be fed DHA enriched plants, rather than continuing to use other fish as a feed, improving the sustainability of aquaculture without compromising quality.
Find out more about the Food Futures Flagship's research.