Metabolic engineering plant seeds with fish oil-like levels of DHA

PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49165. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049165. Epub 2012 Nov 7.


Background: Omega-3 long-chain (≥C(20)) polyunsaturated fatty acids (ω3 LC-PUFA) have critical roles in human health and development with studies indicating that deficiencies in these fatty acids can increase the risk or severity of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases in particular. These fatty acids are predominantly sourced from fish and algal oils, but it is widely recognised that there is an urgent need for an alternative and sustainable source of EPA and DHA. Since the earliest demonstrations of ω3 LC-PUFA engineering there has been good progress in engineering the C(20) EPA with seed fatty acid levels similar to that observed in bulk fish oil (∼18%), although undesirable ω6 PUFA levels have also remained high.

Methodology/principal findings: The transgenic seed production of the particularly important C(22) DHA has been problematic with many attempts resulting in the accumulation of EPA/DPA, but only a few percent of DHA. This study describes the production of up to 15% of the C(22) fatty acid DHA in Arabidopsis thaliana seed oil with a high ω3/ω6 ratio. This was achieved using a transgenic pathway to increase the C(18) ALA which was then converted to DHA by a microalgal Δ6-desaturase pathway.

Conclusions/significance: The amount of DHA described in this study exceeds the 12% level at which DHA is generally found in bulk fish oil. This is a breakthrough in the development of sustainable alternative sources of DHA as this technology should be applicable in oilseed crops. One hectare of a Brassica napus crop containing 12% DHA in seed oil would produce as much DHA as approximately 10,000 fish.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brassica / genetics
  • Brassica / metabolism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids* / genetics
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids* / metabolism
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / genetics
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3* / biosynthesis
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3* / genetics
  • Fish Oils* / biosynthesis
  • Fish Oils* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Engineering*
  • Plants, Genetically Modified / genetics
  • Plants, Genetically Modified / metabolism
  • Seeds / genetics
  • Seeds / metabolism


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Fish Oils
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid

Grant support

This research was funded by CSIRO Food Futures Flagship, Nuseed Pty Ltd and the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors were granted permission to publish the manuscript by the funders.