Currently, only ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a short-chain omega-3 that is less bioavailable for humans, can be produced from plant sources such as flax.
While long-chain DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is available from microalgae, fish oil remains the primary source of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA, raising concerns about sustainability and cost.
The race has therefore been on to develop more cost-effective and sustainable plant-based sources of EPA and DHA by identifying the genes responsible for producing enzymes which convert shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids found in plants into longer chain ones found in marine sources.
Dow: We know we can do it
David Dzisiak, commercial leader oils at Dow AgroSciences, said: “We’ve demonstrated we can do it and gone beyond proof of concept into the development stage. We are confident we can produce it very sustainably and cheaply [compared with marine-based sources] but we’re still a number of years out from when we will have a product on the market.”
Ensuring that the canola oil in question (produced from canola seeds from Dow modified with a gene from Martek’s microalgae) contained a meaningful quantity of DHA per serving was key, said Dzisiak.
“For it to fit into a food system and to be able to make claims, the oil must contain a meaningful amount of DHA, not a token amount. We can’t have a situation where you’ve got to consume two bottles of the oil before you can get the quantity of DHA you need.
"We’re confident we can achieve a meaningful amount, however for competitive reasons I can’t give you a number of where we are right now."
Better than Soymega?
While Monsanto’s stearidonic acid (SDA) -rich oil Soymega – produced in partnership with Solae - was likely to hit the market first, the Dow/Martek offer would be “much better” because it contained DHA and not just a precursor, even though SDA was more readily converted into EPA than ALA, he said.
Meanwhile, BASF, which has also been working on developing canola oil containing commercial levels of EPA and DHA by experimenting with genes from algae, fungi and mosses, is understood to be conducting extensive agronomic and yield trials with a view to bringing something to market within five years.
While BASF had worked out the enzymatic steps involved in transforming EPA to DHA in canola some time ago, the challenge has been to identify the rate-limiting steps in the metabolic pathways that impact the overall amounts of DHA produced.