Brussels, 18 May 2004
Researchers from Bristol University in the UK have created a genetically modified plant that can produce healthy fatty acids normally associated with eggs and fish.
The polyunsaturated fatty acids, known as omega-3 and omage-6, help regulate blood pressure and improve cell signalling. Furthermore, it is thought that omega-3 acids can aid brain development and protect against heart disease and arthritis.
'It's important to get a healthy balance of the two [omega acids],' says Dr Baoxiu Qi who led the team at Bristol University, before moving to the University of Bath. While it is doubtful that anyone will eat its lab-grown Arabidopsis (a relative of the cabbage), the team has now proven that it is possible to modify plants in such a way, which could herald a healthier generation of vegetables.
The human body cannot produce these long-chain fatty acids itself, so they must be obtained through our diet. The most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids are oily fish, while poultry and eggs are good sources of omega-6. However, with declining fish stocks and subsequent higher prices, some believe that alternative sources of these beneficial chemicals must be found, not least vegans and vegetarians.
As well as offering people an alternative means of adding these fatty acids to their diets, similar plants could also be fed to animals, thus introducing the acids into the food chain at an earlier stage.
'Any plants with green tissue, they all have the potential to produce these long-chain fatty acids,' Dr Qi told the BBC. 'If we try to increase the omega-3 fatty acids in a plant, a good source would be linseed; and for the omega-6, I think rapeseed would be quite good, or soya.'
Other attempts to introduce beneficial compounds into everyday food have led to the recent marketing of chicken eggs rich in omega fatty acids. Already known as a good source of omega-6 acids, the eggs were produced by chickens fed on omega-3 rich cereals.
Dr Qi pointed to a further benefit of genetically modified plants rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids - their ability to block methane production in cows' stomachs. This property could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in countries where agricultural sources of methane can account for up to 40 per cent of all greenhouse gases.
The team's work was partly funded by the German biotech company BASF, which promises to further investigate this avenue of research. Their hope is that similar genetic modifications designed to produce healthier foods could prove more acceptable to consumers than previous applications of the technology.