HERTFORDSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM — Scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire in a laboratory setting have developed a Camelina sativa or “false flax” plant with a high content of fish oil. The scientists, however, made no mention of using the plant in human food applications. Instead, they are pushing the discovery for use as feed in fish farming or aquaculture.

The oils involved are two omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.

“The omega-3 LC-PUFAs that are beneficial for health are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA),” said Johnathan Napier, a professor and lead scientist at Rothamsted Research. “They modulate both metabolic and immune processes and confer health benefits in areas or (coronary heart disease) and neurodevelopment. Plant sources of omega-3, e.g. flax seed, do not produce EPA and DHA. Instead they produce shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids such as a-linolenic acid (ALA).”

Researchers at Rothamsted used synthetic gene sequences involved in the biosynthesis of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that were optimized to be functional in Camelina sativa, Dr. Napier said.

Efforts to place EPA and DHA into plants have taken place elsewhere. Cargill and BASF Plant Science in 2011 agreed to co-develop canola oil containing EPA/DHA. The companies said the potential canola oil would enable food, pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement manufacturers to add omega-3 fatty acids in a variety of consumer products available by the end of the decade.

Rothamsted Research submitted an application to the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for permission to carry out a G.M. (genetically modified) field trial in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“It will be a significant step forward if we are granted permission to perform a controlled experiment in our already established facilities here at Rothamsted Research,” said Martin Parry, a professor and acting director at Rothamsted Research. “We will be able to assess in real environmental conditions the potential of contributing a more sustainable and affordable alternative way of providing fish oil. This will potentially enable us to provide knowledge that may contribute in reducing the pressure on the marine resources.”

Fish farming or aquaculture is becoming a major source of fish for human consumption, according to Rothamsted Research. Fish generally obtain EPA and DHA through their diet and marine microbes. Farmed marine fish are provided with dietary EPA and DHA trough their feed to make them compatible with and as healthy as their wild counterparts, according to Rothamsted Research. Adding EPA and DHA to plants would make fish feed production practices more sustainable with less negative impact on the aquatic food web, according to Rothamsted Research.