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November 03, 2008— Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

A fatty acid found in breast milk is now being grown on the Canadian prairie, thanks to a bit of genetic ingenuity by NRC researchers. By inserting a gene from an obscure Mediterranean plant into a cousin of canola, researchers have created a new source of nervonic acid, which could be used to fortify infant formulas and treat symptoms of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Nervonic acid is an important component of brain fats and helps to form myelin — the insulating sheath surrounding nerve fibres. It is produced by lactating mothers and also exists in the seed oils of certain plants. "There is increasing evidence that dietary supplementation with nervonic acid is healthy for babies and infants during the early stage of brain development," says Dr. David Taylor of the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) in Saskatoon. Nervonic acid has been reported to reduce the shaking associated with Parkinson's disease and the numbness caused by multiple sclerosis. It also has potential for treating schizophrenia and reducing early Alzheimer's symptoms.

The problem is that few plants produce nervonic acid in their seed oils. The best source is Lunaria annua — also called the "Money plant" because its seed pod resembles a coin purse. But Lunaria is an unreliable crop with variable yields. "Also, the oil content is low, and the seeds shatter very easily," says Dr. Taylor. In addition, Lunaria contains unacceptable levels of erucic acid, which may pose health risks.

Dr. David Taylor (right) of NRC-PBI and Dr. Vesna Katavic, an NRC guest worker at the time, performed the research that led to a new source of brain-healthy nervonic acid.

Dr. David Taylor (right) of NRC-PBI and Dr. Vesna Katavic, an NRC guest worker at the time, performed the research that led to a new source of brain-healthy nervonic acid.

Dr. Taylor wanted to create a better source of nervonic acid in a crop that would grow well in the Canadian climate. He tracked down a plant called Cardamine (bittercress), which grows on forest floors in the Mediterranean. "It's a spindly little thing — hardly a crop," he says. But Cardamine contains unusually high levels of nervonic acid in its seed oil.

Dr. Taylor isolated the Cardamine gene that produces nervonic acid and inserted it into Brassica carinata, a close relative of canola that thrives in Canada's increasingly dry midwest.

The results were dramatic. Plants boosted with the Cardamine gene increased the proportion of nervonic acid in their seed oil from 1.5 percent to almost 45 percent — the highest yield ever achieved. The plants also had very low levels of the undesirable erucic acid. "I was very excited," says Dr. Taylor. "Such an impressive result from one gene is remarkable."

Trials of the new crops on a farm near Saskatoon show that they perform as well in the great outdoors as they did in the greenhouse. The next step is to identify the region of Cardamine's protein that is so efficient at producing nervonic acid. "If we can determine that, we can probably create even further nervonic increases," says Dr. Taylor.

NRC-PBI is pursuing potential markets for nervonic acid as an additive for infant formulas and an adult supplement for brain health.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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