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Friday, February 03, 2006

Tassie role in health revolution

The Mercury: Tassie role in health revolution [04feb06]

TASMANIAN scientists are part of a team behind a world first that could revolutionise human health.

It has developed plants which produce a substance called DHA, a component in omega-3 oils.

Omega-3 oils, which are found in seafood, are vital to human health. The research could mean the commercial growing of plants containing DHA.

However, that could be up to seven years away and, because the plants are genetically modified, there are political, legal and consumer issues still to deal with.

Tasmania, for example, has placed a moratorium on GM crops, saying there is a market advantage in promoting Tasmanian produce as clean, green and GM-free.

The Tasmanian members of the CSIRO team are based at the organisation's laboratories in Hobart.

The local research is being conducted by micro-algae biologist Sue Blackburn, molecular geneticist Stan Robart and research chemist Peter Nichols.

They are teaming with scientists from Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

The team has isolated the gene in micro-algae which produces DHA and transferred it to a plant called arabidopsis, a member of the cress family.

Seeds produced by the plants were found to contain DHA.

"We are now trialling with other crops such as canola, cotton seed and linseed and will know the results within six months," Dr Nichols said.

Although scientists started recognising the components of fish oils as early as the 1930s, it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s research in the area took off.

It was triggered by health experts recognising that Eskimos, whose staple diet is fish, had an incredibly low incidence of heart disease.

They also found the Japanese, another fish-eating people, had lower levels of heart disease and were living longer than their counterparts in other nations.

The known and suspected health benefits of DHA give the CSIRO's research global significance.

Not only is the breakthrough the first step toward improving human nutrition, it will lead to reduced pressure on declining fish resources and provide Australian grain growers with new high-value crops for global markets.


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