Lamb the future fish
Scientists are confident that lamb could soon become as important a source of Omega-3 fatty acids as oily fish.
Researchers at CSIRO Livestock Industries (CLI) and the Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food are investigating whether sheep can be bred to increase the level of essential fatty acids like Omega-3 in their meat while reducing the amount of saturated fats.
CSIRO nutritionist Dr Soressa Kitessa and Department of Agriculture geneticist Dr Johan Greeff have found genetic variations in sheep that show the level of beneficial fatty acids in individual animals is hereditary.
Their research on nearly 500 pedigree ram hoggets demonstrated that the meat from some sheep contained more than twice the Omega-3 levels of that found in other sheep.
The top 100 sheep in the study contained natural levels of Omega-3 that would place them close to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand's classification as "a good source" of Omega-3. Currently, the classification is applied to oily fish and other products that have Omega-3 additives.
The research has opened the possibility to a breeding program that could potentially see high-value cuts of lamb marketed for their Omega-3 content.
Kitessa said existing methods of increasing the Omega-3 content of meat had tended to centre on food supplements and additives. But such approaches were expensive using current supplies of oil.
"We are confident that the creation of a high value fat-modified lamb is feasible," Kitessa said.
Greeff said breeding offered the opportunity to change the fatty acid composition of sheep permanently without the need for supplements or additives. Future research will focus on the genetic relationships between the different types of fatty acids.
"To date the genetic improvement in sheep has largely focused on increasing growth rate and muscularity while reducing total carcass fat content," Greeff said.
"This latest research means that we can now look to develop a meat sheep that not only tastes better but will be better for you."
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