Scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia have engineered pigs that may offer an alternative source of omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers transferred an ocean worm gene called fat-1 into pig cells, then employed cloning techniques to create embryonic cells that were implanted into the womb of a normal pig.
The gene then produced an enzyme that converted the less desirable omega-6 fatty acids that pigs naturally produced into omega-3s, the researchers wrote in Nature Biotechnology . Tissue from the resulting piglets had high levels of omega-3s and less omega-6, the researchers said.
The omega-3 pigs "could represent an alternative source as well as be an ideal model for studying cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders," which also may be impacted by boosting the healthy fat, said Dr Yifan Dai, a University of Pittsburgh scientist who transferred the worm gene into the pig cells. "Also, the fish supply is declining, so maybe we need to find a different source for omega-3s," Dai said.
Among benefits such as heart health, omega-3s are important for foetal development but pregnant women are warned to limit consumption of fish that may be high in mercury. "In this case, we think our pigs will help a lot," Dai said. The genetically altered pigs appeared healthy and looked the same as normal pigs, he said, although there are many scientists who question the safety of GM meat and other animal by-products.
The pig researchers used the same technology that one member of the team, Dr Jing Kang of Massachusetts General Hospital, had previously used to produce omega-3 boosted mice. Other scientists are attempting to make fish, chickens and cows rich in omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in abundance in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, as well as some vegetable sources such as the seeds of hemp and flax.