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Rothamsted Research submits application to Defra for permission to carry out field trial with GM Camelina plants

Rothamsted Research submits application to Defra for permission to carry out field trial with GM Camelina plants

The trial will test whether GM Camelina sativa plants are able to make significant quantities of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) and astaxanthin in the seed of the plant under field conditions. A public consultation has begun.

Rothamsted Research has submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for permission to carry out a GM field trial on the Rothamsted Farm in 2016 and 2017. Scientists at Rothamsted Research, who receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have previously trialed in the field Camelina plants that accumulate omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) in their seeds.  In addition they have developed plants that can also accumulate astaxanthin, a pigment that is commonly used as a feed additive in aquaculture. The purpose of the proposed trial is to evaluate in the field the performance of the novel traits combined and individually. The proposed trial is part of the ongoing strategic programme of research at Rothamsted.

Omega-3 LC-PUFAs have been shown to be beneficial for human health and contribute to protection against coronary heart diseases .The primary dietary sources of these fatty acids are marine fish, either wild stocks or farmed fish (aquaculture). Fish, like humans, do not produce these oils but accumulate them through their diet in the wild or through fishmeal and fish oil in farmed fish. Around 80 percent of all fish oil is consumed by the aquaculture sector.

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment that has antioxidant properties and is used as a feed additive in fish farming. It is the pigment that gives salmon its characteristic pink colour. Astaxanthin is found in some marine organisms at the base of the food-web such as algae and krill.

Aquaculture, a rapidly expanding modern industry, is seeking new omega-3 LC-PUFAs and astaxanthin sources to ensure its production practices remain sustainable and nurture the essential aquatic food web. One potential approach towards flexible and sustainable supply of omega-3 LC-PUFAs and astaxanthin is to engineer a crop plant with the capacity to synthesise both the fatty acids and the pigment in seeds.

Rothamsted Research, through the strategic funding  received from  BBSRC, has developed genetically engineered Camelina plants that can successfully produce omega-3 LC-PUFAs in the glass house (Ruiz-Lopez et al.2013) and in the field (Usher et al. 2015).

Rothamsted Research scientists in collaboration with researchers in the USA have been testing in the laboratory and the glasshouses whether it is possible to develop GM plants that can produce both omega-3 LC-PUFAs and astaxanthin. This potentially could ensure optimal use of the GM crop as a source of the key components required for efficient and resilient aquaculture.

Professor Johnathan Napier, lead scientist of this project at Rothamsted Research said: “The omega-3 LC-PUFAs that are beneficial for health are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 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). ALA does not confer the health-beneficial properties associated with EPA and DHA, despite the former also being an omega-3 fatty acid. Not all omega-3 fatty acids are equivalent. We used synthetic gene sequences involved in the biosynthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs that have been optimised in order to be functional in Camelina plants. These synthetic sequences are based on the sequence of genes found in photosynthetic marine organisms, and other lower eukaryote species such as mosses and oomycetes.”

“We have produced three varieties of plants, one that seven synthetic genes have been introduced into the plant and they make EPA and DHA omega-3 LC-PUFAs, one that has three synthetic genes and makes astaxanthin and one that has combined the genes to make EPA and DHA and astaxanthin. The reason why we needed to introduce this number of synthetic genes is that the synthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs and astaxanthin requires multi-step processes. In order to achieve maximum production of these oils and the pigment in the seed of Camelina plants we had to help the internal biosynthetic machinery of the plant to shift from ALA towards the production of EPA and DHA and also produce the pigment”.

More information on this project can be found at the dedicated Questions and Answers Section on the Rothamsted Research website at

Once the Rothamsted application is passed to Defra an independent expert group, the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE), will evaluate the application through a statutory 90 day process which includes a public consultation.

The Secretary of State will consider any representations made to her relating to any risks of damage to the environment posed by the release of the genetically modified organisms within a period that she shall specify in accordance with the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002.

The Secretary of State will place information on this proposed GMO release on a public register within 12 days of her receipt of the application. The public register can be inspected by contacting the Defra GM Team at Nobel House, Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR (e-mail: This information will also be placed on the GOV.UK website (

If granted permission to conduct the field trial this controlled experiment will be part of the Institute’s Strategic Programme of Research Designing Seeds for Nutrition and Health, which receives financial support from BBSRC.

Further reading:

Consultation on the Risks and Benefits of Fish Consumption. Rome, 25–29 January 2010. 
FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Report. No. 978. Rome, FAO. 2011. 50p.

Flock, M.R., Harris, W.S., Kris-Etherton, P.M. (2013) Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: time to establish a dietary reference intake. Nutrition Reviews Vol.71 (10): 692-707

Ruiz-Lopez, N., Haslam, R.P., Napier, J.A., Sayanova, O. (2013). Successful high-level accumulation of fish oil omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in a transgenic oilseed crop. The Plant Journal Vol. 77 (2): 198-208

Usher et al. 2015. Field trial evaluation of the accumulation of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in transgenic Camelina sativa: Making fish oil substitutes in plants. Metabolic Engineering Communications 2: 93-98 doi:10.1016/j.meteno.2015.04.002


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