An important discovery that could “revolutionize” the understanding of omega-3 production in the ocean was made by an international team of scientists.
Research led by the University of Stirling has shown for the first time that many invertebrates that live in marine ecosystems, including corals, worms and molluscs, can produce omega-3 fatty acids.
The breakthrough challenges the generally accepted principle that marine microbes such as microalgae and bacteria are responsible for virtually all of the primary production of omega-3s.
The lead scientist Dr. Oscar Monroig of the Institute of Aquaculture said the results strongly suggest that aquatic invertebrates “could make a very significant contribution to global omega-3 production”.
‘Our study provides a significant paradigm shift as it shows that a wide variety of invertebrates, including corals, rotifers, molluscs, polychaetes and crustaceans, have enzymes called’ desaturases’ that enable them to produce omega-3s Skills that are believed to exist almost exclusively in marine microbes, ”explained Dr. Monroig.
The study’s first author, Dr. Naoki Kabeya, from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, attended the Institute of Aquaculture after receiving a grant from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland (MASTS).
Dr. Kabeya said, “Since invertebrates are a major component of biomass in aquatic ecosystems such as coral reefs, abyssal plains, and hydrothermal springs, their contribution to overall omega-3 production is likely to be remarkable.”
Also involved in the research were Stirling’s Professor Douglas Tocher and members of an international consortium of scientists, including Dr. David Ferrier of the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St. Andrews; Dr. Filipe Castro from the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR) – University of Porto; the Spanish National Research Council; the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences; and Deakin University.
Dr. Ferrier said: “We were very surprised to see how widespread these genes were, especially in animals that are so common and abundant in the ocean.”
‘It’s also fascinating that these genes appear to jump into an insect and a springtail through a process of horizontal gene transfer between very different organisms such as plants or fungi. This was a controversial idea that genes can move this way, but our data seems pretty convincing that these genes did so in at least some of these species. ‘
Certain omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential for human health, especially in western countries with a high prevalence of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, for which omega-3 oil supplements are commonly prescribed. Hence, the new research is likely to have an impact not only on the scientific community, but also on the general public and various industries involved in the manufacture of nutritional supplements.
“These results may revolutionize our understanding of the production of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on a global scale,” added Dr. Monroig added.
The paper Genes for the de novo biosynthesis of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids is widely used in animals and was funded by MASTS and the European Union’s FP7 funding program.
The research is published in Science Advances.