Montana State University

Undergrad researches food for fish and fish as food; Will research lead to new Montana crop?

April 21, 2005 -- By Carol Flaherty

Rick Barrows, USDA-ARS fish nutrition specialist, and Matt Kirkpatrick take a look at their favorite subject: trout in the Fish Technology Center near Bozeman. MSU Photo by Carol Flaherty   High-Res Available

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Matt Kirkpatrick knows fish more thoroughly than most avid Montana fishermen.

He knows what they need in their diet, not just what fly they'll strike. He knows how they convert their food to flesh and the biochemistry that produces more omega-3 oil in ocean fish than freshwater fish.

The Montana State University senior from Great Falls even has ideas about fish that may contribute to a new industry for Montana while protecting the world's wild fish populations.

It seems easy enough. Humans need omega-3 oil as part of a healthy diet. Ocean fish produce omega-3 oil, but wild fish populations are declining. So why not farm fish to increase the supply? One problem: Even fish farms need fish food, and traditional fish food includes ground up fish, which supports the production of omega-3 fats in their tissues.

"Today, fishermen use huge nets to scoop up bunches of fish, which are then ground up," says Kirkpatrick. "The meal is pressed to get the fish oil, and that is what is added to fish feed and gets converted by the fish into the omega-3 oils that are so good for us. As the wild stocks of fish are depleted, you have less fish for fishmeal. Fish farmers need an alternative, so researchers are looking at every way possible to enhance plant-based feeds," he adds.

Kirkpatrick, though still an undergraduate, is one of those researchers.

"Matt has the lead on this," says Dave Sands, biotechnologist and professor in the MSU Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department. "We have brilliant Montana kids. We need to grab them and stimulate them. They understand Montana and what to do to help Montana."

Kirkpatrick says he received just such stimulation from Sands.

"Dave taught a lab research methods class when I was a sophomore and provoked my interest in research," Kirkpatrick said. So far, that interest has fueled his research for over a year and a half. It also has brought him an Undergraduate Scholars Program grant and perhaps a trip to Spain this summer to present his findings at an International Oil Crops Association annual meeting. Graduate school also seems to be a certainty.

"I haven't decided what my focus will be in grad school, whether biotech, biochem or microbiology," said Kirkpatrick, who is majoring in biotech and microbial systems, with minors in biochemistry and chemistry. He says biochemistry has helped him study both the food needs of people and the feed needs of fish.

Mary Stein, a Montana State University nutrition researcher who works as part of the fish-food team, is the expert on the human nutrition side of the work.

"Research shows that omega-3 fats have great potential to contribute to better human health," Stein says. "Human nutrition research seems to indicate that more omega-3 consumption would decrease the risk for many of our diseases that have inflammation at their core, including heart disease, arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases and asthma."

Very few plants produce omega-3 fats, and plant-based omega-3 fats are slightly different than fish omega-3s, Stein says. Plants produce a shorter chain molecule than fish. Flax, walnuts and a native grass called camelina are among the plant world's best omega-3 producers. Fish produce long-chain omega-3 oil, but also may convert short-chain omega-3 oils to the long-chain version. Humans are less efficient at that conversion, but there are still many questions about the rate of conversion in humans and the extent to which other dietary factors influence this rate, Stein says. In addition, the relative human health benefits of short- versus long-chain omega-3 oils are still being studied.

Humans need to make good fish food if we are to feed the world's human population, says Sands. It is that need and Sands search for new Montana value-added crops that led him to suggest fish feeds for Kirkpatrick's research.

Essentially, both human and fish tissue reflects what they eat, says Rick Barrows, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service's fish nutrition specialist working in Bozeman and Idaho. Fish farm diets are high in omega-3s because those diets include the oil from ocean fish, says Barrows.

"What we'd like to do is to be able to change to a plant-based diet but keep the omega-3s," Barrows says. The researchers hope it is possible to find a plant source for the feed that is just as healthy for both fish and the humans that eat them.

Topping the researchers' list of possible feeds are those that include camelina, a little known native grain in the mustard family that only grows in cold climates like Montana and includes omega-3 oils.

"Conventional wisdom is that fish won't convert short-chain to long-chain omega-3," said Barrows. "But, a very small study where fish were fed partially with camelina suggested that they were converting the oil. That was really exciting, but we definitely need to verify that work with a larger study."

The preliminary study by Kirkpatrick suggested that camelina could double omega-3 in fish even compared to a fish-based diet. The researchers say the follow-up study is underway and the answer about camelina could come as soon as this summer. If camelina, which is particularly well-suited to growing in Montana, can take the place of fish-based omega-3s in farm-fish diets, Montana farmers could find themselves with a new crop, Sands says.

While Kirkpatrick is excited to find out about the omega-3 work with camelina, he also is enthused by other topics.

"I've always liked science, and I'm super interested in human health and working on ways to enhance human health. You work with fish and work up to human health aspects. It's a cascading effect."

What is Kirkpatrick's own approach to healthy eating?

"I eat quite a lot of fish, usually those I catch myself. But there is way more studying than playing. I only get to play when my schedule allows, which is not too often," says Kirkpatrick, who has maintained a 3.9 grade point average at MSU. He graduated from C. M. Russell High School and is the son of Mike and Debbie Kirkpatrick.

Contact: Matt Kirkpatrick, Dave Sands (406) 994-5151, Mary Stein (406) 994-5640; Rick Barrows (406) 587-9265