Biotech fruit-fortified canola opportunity

Researchers at the University of Alberta are developing canola to serve nutraceutical and cosmetic markets by producing an oil profile similar to pomegranate.

Gavin Chen, a researcher and Canada Research Chair at U of A’s Plant Biotechnology Lab, said pomegranate oil is high in punicic acid. The fatty acid purported to deliver a range of health benefits, from combating cancer and cardiovascular disease to helping to manage diabetes.

Chen was speaking at the 50th Anniversary Edition of Canola Week on Dec. 3. This year’s event was held online due to the pandemic.

Pomegranate oil is expensive and the supply is inconsistent, Chen said, which makes it attractive to develop an alternative.

“We bought some pomegranate seed oil from a supplier from the United States last year that we used in our project and the drum price was about $25 Canadian per kilogram,” Chen said.

This is roughly 11 times the retail price of canola oil at the supermarket, and it puts it out of reach for some potentially valuable applications. For example, Chen points to research that shows punicic acid shows promise as an alternative to replace growth-promoting antibiotics that are no longer allowed in livestock production.

“Pomegranate, we mainly produce them as a fruit, so the production (of oil) is not reliable,” he said. “So if we really want to use punicic acid, we need the oil at a large scale and for different kinds of applications. We really need a more reliable, consistent and cheaper supply.”

Chen and his colleagues saw an opportunity for canola producers to grow a specialty crop under contract. They got to work to turn canola into a factory for punicic acid.

The researchers took two pomegranate genes and inserted them into canola using Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a soil bacterium used for its talent as a natural genetic engineer.

When the transgenic canola lines were tested, all produced some punicic acid, up to 11 percent. In comparison, pomegranate seeds yield 65 percent or more, depending on the variety.

“All those lines could produce punicic acid, and total oil was still comparable to the control,” Chen said.

The next step is to take the new canola into field trials both to test its performance and to produce enough oil for further testing for end-product use, both in human and animal health applications.

The work has already attracted attention from industry.

“When we published this paper in Metabolic Engineering, the next day I got an email from a food company and they wanted to know if they could test the oil in their food products,” Chen said. “I just told them, I’m sorry, I don’t have the oil yet. We didn’t do a field trial yet.”

The call did lead to a commitment to supply the high-punicic-acid canola oil once it’s available, as well as an agreement for future collaboration.

In the meantime, Chen and his colleagues are taking another look at the genes to see what might be tweaked to increase the level of the valuable fatty acid.

“We think there are some genes that are very promising, so I would like to test that.”

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