Sustainable production of omega-3 oils

Microalgae offer us a direct and sustainable source of omega-3 oils.

The Challenge

Finding new sources of omega-3 oils

Omega-3 oils, also known as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), are highly sought after for their human health benefits such as cardiovascular protection and improved cognitive development and function, as well as for use in animal nutrition and medical applications.

Originally sourced from fish, growing concerns with food security, fish stocks, industrial fishing and pollutants in some fish oils have led to increased interest in alternative sources of omega-3 oils, including microalgae, bacteria, fungi, and yeasts.

Our Response

Evaluating microalgae

Algae culures in the collection

Microalgae are the primary source of omega-3 LC-PUFA in the marine food chain and fish obtain omega-3 LC-PUFA from microalgae through their diet. Microalgae offer us a direct and renewable source of these valuable oils.

We are evaluating microalgae strains from our collection for their potential as single cell sources of omega-3 oils. We have also explored the diversity of our microalgae to discover the genes responsible for biosynthesis of the LC-PUFA EPA (ecosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

The Results

New crops with omega-3 oils

Photosynthetic microalgae from classes such as the Eustimatophyceae (e.g. Nannochloropsis) and the Prymesiophyceae (e.g. Pavlova)  are good sources of EPA, while dinoflagellates are high producers of DHA. Heterotrophic thraustochytrids (e.g. Schizochytrium) that use carbon as an energy source to grow can be high producers of both EPA and DHA and can be scaled up in our Protein Production Facility.

Genes discovered from our microalgae are the basis of new crops that produce omega-3 oils.

A new source of omega-3 oils

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: A new source of Omega-3 oils]

[Image changes to show a pile of fish oil capsules]

Narrator: Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for human health, playing an important role in heart and brain function, as well as child and infant development.

[Image shows a family sitting at a table eating a meal]

The body can only make very small amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, so they need to be obtained from the food we eat.

[Image shows a table of food with breads, vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy foods, image then changes to three fish on ice]

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, such as salmon and tuna, but the original source of these healthy oils are tiny plant like organisms in the ocean called microalgae.

Fish contain Omega-3 fatty acids because they eat these microalgae.

[Image shows fish swimming past]

Fish have long been the main source of the most beneficial Omega-3 oils, until now, thanks to some groundbreaking research from the CSIRO.


Some plants, like flaxseed, contain some Omega-3 oils; however they mostly provide what are called short chain Omega-3s.

[Animated video of a long chain DHA and short chain DHA plays]

Show here is the structure of a typical short chain Omega-3 oil, ALA, found in flax oil.

[Animated video of short chain ALA plays]

And here is the structure of DHA, the important long chain Omega-3 oil found in fish.

[Animated video of long chain DHA plays]

This longer more complex structure of a long chain DHA is particularly important in delivering the increased health benefits that come from consuming fish oils.


[Animated video of the human body plays]

The Omega-3 DHA we eat is transported to the human brain, eyes, and nervous system, where it’s required for their proper development and function, and is particularly important in infants. Long chain Omega-3 DHA has also been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, and it may also play a role in mental health, depression, and various inflammatory diseases.


[Image changes to a scientist working at a table, cutting up a plant sample]

CSIRO scientists are using advanced genetic technologies to transfer the genes that make long chain Omega-3 oils from ocean based microalgae to land based canola plants. Unlike canola, microalgae contain all the genes needed to make DHA.

[Animated image of a plant cell and agrobacterium cell appears]

CSIRO scientists have isolated an optimum set of genes from microalgae that make Omega-3 DHA. The microalgae genes are transferred into canola plant cells using a bacterium called Agrobacterium, which uses a natural process to transfer genes to plant cells.

[Animation video showing transfer of cells plays]

Cells receiving the microalgae genes then divide and develop into a small shoot...

[Camera shot of shooting plants]

... and finally a whole plant, similar to how you can take a cutting from an adult plant and regenerate it into a new plant.

[Camera shot of plants in pots]

The genetically modified canola plants are tested thoroughly over a number of generations, to ensure that the plant is making DHA.

[Image shows a scientist inspecting a plant]

All of the steps needed to carry out this process, as well as trialling elite canola lines and growing commercial crops, are conducted under the strict regulatory requirements administered by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

[Title appears: BIG BENEFITS]

[Image shows a scientist in a laboratory with a shelving unit with lots of plant samples in containers, the scientist is inspecting the plant samples]

With an increasing consumer demand for Omega-3 oils, and limitations on the ability of global fish stocks to meet the expected demand, developing a land based source of long chain Omega-3 oils will help meet the world’s growing appetite for this important oil in a sustainable way.

CSIRO, NUSEED, and the GRDC, have established an important research collaboration to develop a high value canola oil which will contain the same high quality long chain Omega-3 oil that has traditionally come from fish.

[Image shows canola oil, then changes to a canola plant field]

Australian farmers are set to benefit because they’ll have access to a new high value crop. They’ll be guaranteed first access to this Omega-3 canola which will help them gain a competitive advantage over other farmers from around the world.

After commercialisation in the Australian market Omega-3 canola oil will be targeted for global expansion, ensuring a reliable and sustainable supply.

[Camera pans over potted plants]

The Australian and global aquaculture industries will also benefit because they’ll be able to decrease their reliance on fish oil sourced from wild fish stocks.

[Image changes to a fish swimming, then changes to fish on ice]

They’ll also be able to access a reliable and sustainable source of DHA in their production of high quality seafood products.

[Image changes to a supermarket checkout]

Those that will benefit most though are every day consumers, both in Australia and around the world. They’ll soon have easy access to a sustainable and renewable source of long chain Omega-3 oils that are so vital to human health, through a wide range of products.

[Image changes to a table of different foods, then changes to a scientist in a greenhouse inspecting pot plants]

This project is a very exciting example of how Australian scientists, the Australian grains industry, and the Australian agribusiness industry, can come together to harness cutting edge research and supply global markets with a high value product.

[Flow chart of Long Chain Omega-3 Oils appears displaying Canola in the middle with arrows pointing to Aquaculture, Everyday foods and Everyday Consumers]

And with such important environmental and public health benefits to add to the industry benefits, Omega-3 canola is one of the most exciting research developments coming from Australian science.

[Title appears: The Australian Omega-3 Canola Research Project is a collaboration between: [Logos] CSIRO - GRDC Grains Research & Development Corporation - NUSEED]

[Music plays, CSIRO logo and text appears: Big ideas start here]

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