We are developing canola crops that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The challenge

Our reliance on fish stocks for omega-3

Nutritionists have recognised the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for many years. Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are considered 'healthy oils'. Docosa-hexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 oil and a key structural component of cellular membranes in the human body. It is vital for early childhood growth and, in particular, brain and eye development. It can also reduce blood pressure and the risk of coronary heart disease as well as stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory disease and asthma.

DHA and other long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are made by lower plant forms, including marine plants like microalgae. Some land-based plants, like flaxseed, can produce short-chain omega-3 oils, but are unable to produce the more beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA.

Land-based plants are unable to produce the beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA.  ©Siobhan Duffy

The awareness of their health benefits and inclusion in diets – either as supplements or used to fortify processed foods – has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Fish, the world's primary source of dietary omega-3 oils, 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. As demand for omega-3 oils continues to grow faster than can be sustainably supplied from wild fish stocks, the race is on to find potential new sources which can satisfy burgeoning consumer demand.

Our response

Long chain omega-3 from canola

The production of plants containing industrially-relevant amounts of these marine-type oils has been a long-standing goal of bioengineers.

Using gene technology our scientists transferred the ability to produce long chain omega-3 oils from lower plants (the marine microalgae that fish consume) into Arabidopsis thaliana (a model plant) and now oilseed crop species canola and Camelina sativa. The oil profile in these species has an excellent, high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio and very low levels of potentially undesirable intermediate fatty acids.

By being able to produce long chain omega-3 oils in canola we are developing a nutrient that is important for human health in a sustainable plant resource.

We have shown that it is possible to produce canola oils containing the same long chain omega-3 oils found in fish oil, and at levels that are commercially viable.

The results

Partnering to commercialise long chain omega-3 canola

a stem of canola with a few open yellow flowers and green buds. The background is significantly blurred shades of blue and white.

Omega-3 canola will provide new opportunities for improving human nutrition, reducing pressure on fishery resources worldwide, and will provide Australian grain growers with new, high-value crops.  ©

In 2011 we joined forces with the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and Nuseed (a wholly owned subsidiary of Nufarm Ltd) to further develop and commercialise long chain omega-3 canola.

We have been trialling elite canola lines with promising results. We have shown that it is possible to produce the same quality long chain omega-3 oils as that found in fish, and at a level that is commercially viable. We are close to seeing the results of this important research turned into a product that is available to consumers and industry.

The GRDC provided financial support to assist in the development of the technology to make the production of the special canola possible and Nuseed is supporting the next stage of development, regulatory approval and global commercialisation.

Ultimately, this research will provide Australian growers with an exciting new variety for domestic and international grain markets.

Long chain omega-3 canola is currently undergoing regulatory approval.

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