Paterson’s curse: rival for a GM crop?

Scientists asked human volunteers to take oil from the purple viper’s bugloss (Paterson’s curse, Echium plantagineum). The team, led by Katrin Kuhnt at Friedrich Schiller University, hoped that this plant oil would be a good substitute for fish oil in the diet. It’s quite promising.

I’m not joking. E. plantagineum really is called Paterson’s curse. Our UK Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, is a career politician so he’ll be used to insults. He might not want to shrug off this particular one.

Why? Because Mr Paterson loves genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered) crops. But conventionally bred (that is, selectively bred) Paterson’s curse might be a rival for the new GM oilseed that I nicknamed Omega Camelina. That’s a false flax (Camelina sativa) genetically engineered so that its seeds contain the kind of fatty acids which naturally are found in oily finfish such as the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).

Field trials of Omega Camelina will start next month, if permitted. GM Freeze is leading a campaign against the Omega Camelina field trials. In that news release, Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze tells us that ‘Echium’ is already ‘available for UK farmers to plant today.’

I think that by ‘Echium’ Ms O’Neill means Paterson’s curse. And I think that in the science about a human feeding trial, ‘echium oil’ means the oil from that plant.

Is echium oil a good substitute for fish oil in the diet? My fellow blogger Kay Hortographical made useful comments to my Omega Camelina post. The health-promoting nutrients in fish oil and in Omega Camelina are the charmingly named omega-3 long-chain fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Kay explained that humans can convert the relatively short-chain fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in various plant oils, into the longer-chain EPA and DHA. But the conversion process isn’t very efficient.

The oil from Paterson’s curse contains another long-chain fatty acid called stearidonic acid (SDA). SDA has been proposed as a surrogate for EPA in human diets.

Dr Kuhnt’s new human feeding trial found that echium oil increased EPA in the blood. It also increased docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) which the human liver can convert to EPA. Echium oil didn’t increase EPA so efficiently as fish oil did. Also, when volunteers ate echium oil, their red blood cells lost DHA, but overall their blood DHA didn’t change. So it was a mixed blessing.

If for whatever reason, you don’t eat wild or farmed salmon and you’re not going to eat Omega Camelina, you might choose to eat ‘echium oil’ – the oil from Paterson’s curse.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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