Thursday, June 25, 2009
DHA farming or mutant manufacturing 101
Let's go to the DHA farm. How do ya grow DHA? DHA is naturally present in human milk. DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. If you can prounouce it, go to the head of the class. I think that is why we call it DHA, much easier to say. Its an omega-3 oil and people usually obtain their omega-3's from fish oil or a vegetarian source is flax oil. Martek Bioscience, an offshoot of the Martin Marietta space program, devised a way to produce DHA through algae (single cell oil production). Originally, the direction of this new food science, was to solve the problem of growing food in space. A great deal of creativity and innovation went into solving the problem. But Martin Marietta divested itself of this research and a new company was born in the eighties, Martek Bioscience.
About nine years ago, I happened across a couple of their patents, and wrote about it in Lactnet.
I stated that the patents talked about the use of recombinants in production of DHA. In my mind when we start talking about recombinants we are talking genetic modification (the DNA is not a natural combination, but a man-made mutation). So I stated that I believed that Martek's oils were genetically engineered. Not long after that statement, I received an email from the company's medical director which stated that their product was not genetically engineered and that if I persisted with stating the products were gmo their would be consequences. I didn't know what consequences but I certainly could envision some pretty dire happenings. So, I started using the word "novel" because that is what the FDA used to describe the DHA and ARA sold by Martek. In genetic engineering terminology novel can mean something new but also can mean genetically engineered. Certainly, one can create this oil with the natural or as they state in their patent "wild" type organism. But there are also some problems with manufacturing on a large scale. These oils are farmed in tanks. The algae is not harvested from the ocean or other bodies of water. It may have at one time been harvested from its natural environment but it is grown in a lab, petri dish. For a price at the ATCC (American Type Culture Collection) you can buy some of Martek's algae. Feed it and it will multiply. Anyway, on a large scale, Martek ran into problems making enough of the oil from the algae (and they were experimenting on various algae to see which one's produced more of the oil). They believed that genetically engineering the algae could resolve some of their production problems.
Patents are legal documents and as such one would assume that how something is worded is critical--critical for possible future litigation and critical for an understanding of the technical nature of the patent that makes it innovative. In August 13, 1992 Martek Bioscience filed a patent called, "Infant formula and baby food containing docosahexaenoic acid obtained from dinoflagellates." (patent # 5397591) The inventors, David J. Kyle et al, state:
"Accordingly wild type and recombinant microorganisms designed to produce single cell oil containing DHA are an aspect of this invention. Such recombinant organisms would include those designed to produce greater quantities of DHA in the single cell oil, greater quantities of total oil, or both, as compared to the quantitites produced by the same wild type microorganism, when provided with the same substrates."
This patent does not say "wild type or recombinant" nor does it say "wild type and/or recombinant." So we have a patent written in 1992 that states the use of recombinant microorganisms. We also know through documents that Martek Bioscience was having a hard time keeping up with the production of DHA. ARA oil, is derived from fungi, which is produced at DSM (Dutch State Mine, a Netherland food company that was once an oil company) and shipped to Martek. This novel farming of food is being used in organic products. I am not sure how one would perceive this kind of farming to be organic?? But I guess if you have enough good PR and enough scientific studies about the value of omega-3, then regulating bodies fall sway to the power of belief. Funny how that belief does not support the promotion of breastfeeding. Rather the belief is that the effort, money most go into making a better infant formula. It would seem to me that in giving infants alternatives to breastfeeding, it would be critical that we have a better understanding of novel or gmo products and their effects on our most vulnerable populations.
Copyright 2009 Valerie W. McClain