The team from Northwest A & F University and the National Beef Cattle Improvement Centre, both based in Yangling in the Shaanxi province, successfully implanted a gene into foetal cells from luxi yellow cattle, a breed with a high beef yield.
"We have provided the first evidence that it is possible to create a new breed of cattle with higher nutritional value in terms of their fatty acid composition," said Linsen Zan from the College of Animal Science and Technology at the university.
The fat 1 gene is instrumental in converting Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3s. A diet rich in Omega 3s has shown to be protective against heart disease, obesity and other illnesses, but levels of these oils have declined in the typical Western diet in recent years, while levels of Omega 6 have risen.
"Any increase in our consumption of these Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) must be a good thing as they are of considerable importance in our well being," said Professor Colin Ratledge, editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Biotechnology Letters which published details of the research project. "All the advice is to eat more foods like oily fish, but we don’t. Hence, getting our PUFAs from beef is a good idea for those who don’t like eating fish."
Similar genes have previously been implanted in pigs, dairy cattle and sheep by other international research groups.
However, the scientists warned that consumers wouldn’t be able to ditch the cod liver oil in favour of steak quite yet, as there is still much research that needs to be done – of the 14 calves that were implanted with the gene, 11 died at four months old.
"Realistically, this is not going to happen for a long time yet," said Ratledge. "The reluctance of the public in the UK and Europe to buy GM foods is well known. But it might be different in China, or other Far Eastern countries."
The US, he added, could prove less of a challenge where consumers seem more receptive to the idea of genetically altered food. A good example, he said, was GM salmon from Chile which is currently available on American supermarket shelves, which has been fed GM yeast with high levels of Omega-3s – the salmon subsequently commands a price premium because of the improved taste and perceived health benefits.
"My guess is that we will see some GM plant foods being introduced that offer some considerable advantage to the purchasers: improved taste, flavour, stability or cheapness. There has got to be something for the public to want and to appreciate that will then reward them for eating GM food. But GM beef still has a long way to go, regrettably."