Fish oil from a plant

March 2014

picture of camilina sativa plant
Camilina sativa. Picture from Creative Commons
A major English GM research facility, the John Innes Centre (JIC), has applied to DEFRA to field test a new GM crop, 'false flax' (Camilina sativa) which has been genetically transformed to accumulate omega-3 long-chain fatty acids in its seed. 

Since Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, will ultimately be responsible for approving the trial, permission is unlikely to be denied [1]. 

Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids in the form of 'EPA' and 'DHA' (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexanenoic acid), are only synthesized by primitive plants, such as algae, and are a vital part of the diet of fish.  They are also credited with important health effects in the humans who eat the fish, especially oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines.  In particular, the JIC cites “strong evidence” that these fatty acids are linked to a lowered risk of death from coronary heart disease.  For this reason, official health advice is to eat two portions of oily fish a week.  All fish are, of course, a valuable source of protein.

In the wild, EPA and DHA in algae are passed up the food-chain from algae-feeders to the fish which eat them.  Farmed fish are fed on fish oil and meal from species of fish not suitable for food.  This production process is now reaching its limit and is unsustainable. 

The GM answer is an oilseed crop which generates 'fish oil' substitute to feed fish to feed us. 

'False flax' was chosen to create this GM crop because it already has the metabolic machinery which naturally produces the precursors to the desired omega-3 fatty acids. 

The genetic engineers had the task of adjusting an entire metabolic web in the plant to accumulate the required approximation of fish oil, that is 13 percent of the GM seed had to contain an equal ratio of EPA to DHA.  All this had to be achieved without any build up of any other intermediate or derivative (and possibly harmful) substance. 

By inserting various combinations of genes modelled on algae genes, plus all the extra DNA apparatus needed to control the expression of each one appropriately, and to make sure it happened only in the seed, candidate seed for eventual commercialisation containing 4, 5 or 7 novel genes were created.  This level of complexity in an artificial DNA construct is cutting edge GM technology. 

False flax is grown in parts of Europe and North America.  Wild relatives, with which false flax can cross pollinate, grow in the UK, but the JIC is confident there are none near their test site. 

The trials, planned over 3 years in the JIC's facilities, will be small-scale (up to 60 m2) and will be secure behind a wire-fence (to keep wild animals and humans out) plus a fine mesh net during flowering to exclude insect pollinators, and 24 hour CCTV. 


There seems little doubt that genetic pollution of related plants and other false-flax crops will happen if GM false flax is grown on a commercial scale, and will take any problems right along with it. 

Plant-based 'fish-oil' certainly isn't going to appear in the food chain anytime soon, but at least one JIC scientist is quite open about it being used as a Trojan horse for the acceptance of other GM products.  There's the added bonus that fish fed GM 'fish-oil' won't have to be labelled. 

Such metabolic engineering is many orders of magnitude more complex than inserting a single bacterial gene for killing insects or for tolerating a herbicide, and nothing like the stacked single genes which are as far as commercial GM crops have come to date.  The scope for harmful by-products or unexpected reactions to environmental stresses, or re-arrangements of the artificial construct over time is exponential. 

The various DNA constructs about to be field tested are the riskiest yet.  All forms of life they may touch will require extensive testing for long-term adverse effects, including soil microbes, wild-life, related plants, the plant itself, the seeds, the derivatives entering the food chain, the fish fed the oil, other animals fed on false flax by-products, humans of all shapes and sizes eating the fish, the offspring from the wombs of mothers eating the fish, and humans eating any products made for direct humans consumption such as high omega-3 fatty acid margarine as suggested by the JIC. 

It's been pointed out that the natural healthy diet of fish is fish.  That's because fish contain a lot of other things besides EPA and DHA which are needed to create healthy fish.  Like the modern unhealthy fatty acid content of beef and dairy from intensively-reared grain-fed cattle compared with grass-fed counterparts, how will the nutritional quality of fillets from intensively reared fish fed fish-oil from flax compare with their fish-fed counterparts? 

Is GM fish-oil a boon to fish-farming, or will it just make a bad problem worse? 

Also, farmed fish are fed soya (GM) and maize (GM), a diet which has been shown to cause stress [2]. 

Like the vast tracts of land used to grow GM soya and GM maize to feed animals instead of humans, devoting yet more precious agricultural land to feeding fish seems a poor route to sustainability. 

Taking a step back to examine the JIC's “strong evidence” for the benefits of the novel fish-oil they're trying to generate in a plant, the actual scientific support for such claims seems mixed.  For example, our NHS website advises us that “Despite claims that fish oil supplements can help prevent numerous conditions including cancer, dementia, arthritis and heart problems, there is little hard evidence for them”.  Are fish-oil supplements processed through farmed fish in a highly unnatural diet likely to be any better? [3] 

GeneWatch UK has pointed out recent evidence implicating omega-3 fish oils in prostate cancer. 

You might think about focusing on a healthy life-style with a fresh, varied, locally-produced diet (which in Scotland will include plenty of oily fish) rather than fish fed fish-oil substitute from a plant. 





·       Noemi Ruiz-Lopez, et al., 2014, Successful high-level accumulation of fish oil omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in a transgenic oilseed crop, The Plant Journal 77

·       High omega-3 GMO not all it's cracked up to be, GM Watch 8.02.14

·       John Innes Centre Q&A on the GM false flax to be trialled, accessed February 2014

·       'Fish oil' GM plant trial application submitted, BBC News 24.01.14

·       Damian Carrington, Fish oil could soon come from GM crop, Guardian 24.01.14

·       Steve Connor, First nutrient-enriched GM crops could be grown in the UK within months, Independent 24.01.14

·       Fish oil extracted from plant seeds, BBC News 9.01.14

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