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J Exp Bot. 2012 Apr;63(7):2397-410. doi: 10.1093/jxb/err454. Epub 2012 Jan 30.

Metabolic engineering of the omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid biosynthetic pathway into transgenic plants.

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  • 1Department of Biological Chemistry, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Herts AL5 2JQ, UK.


Omega-3 (ω-3) very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (VLC-PUFAs) such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5 Δ5,8,11,14,17) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6 Δ4,7,10,13,16,19) have been shown to have significant roles in human health. Currently the primary dietary source of these fatty acids are marine fish; however, the increasing demand for fish and fish oil (in particular the expansion of the aquaculture industry) is placing enormous pressure on diminishing marine stocks. Such overfishing and concerns related to pollution in the marine environment have directed research towards the development of a viable alternative sustainable source of VLC-PUFAs. As a result, the last decade has seen many genes encoding the primary VLC-PUFA biosynthetic activities identified and characterized. This has allowed the reconstitution of the VLC-PUFA biosynthetic pathway in oilseed crops, producing transgenic plants engineered to accumulate ω-3 VLC-PUFAs at levels approaching those found in native marine organisms. Moreover, as a result of these engineering activities, knowledge of the fundamental processes surrounding acyl exchange and lipid remodelling has progressed. The application of new technologies, for example lipidomics and next-generation sequencing, is providing a better understanding of seed oil biosynthesis and opportunities for increasing the production of unusual fatty acids. Certainly, it is now possible to modify the composition of plant oils successfully, and, in this review, the most recent developments in this field and the challenges of producing VLC-PUFAs in the seed oil of higher plants will be described.

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