Saturday, February 10, 2007

Flower power...

The steady application of genetic modification to organisms continues - to the horror of some and the benefit of others. Well, this idea is now blooming in the garden.

Flaming tulips. Blue roses. What Dutch growers of old and Dr Tanaka's employers both grasped is that rarity, and hence economic value, can be created by genetic manipulation.

The stripes of the Semper Augustus were caused by the genes of a virus. Not knowing that an infection was involved, the Dutch growers were puzzled why the Semper Augustus would not breed true. The genetics of blue roses, too, have turned out to be more complicated than expected. The relevant genes cannot easily be pasted into rose DNA because the metabolic pathway for creating blue pigment in a rose consists of more chemical steps than it does in other types of flower. (Florigene has sold bluish genetically modified carnations since 1998.) Success, then, has been a matter of pinning down the genes that allow those extra steps to happen, and then transplanting them to their new host.

And not just the appearance of plants is manipulable. Researchers are hoping to make roses smell like roses used to as well.

With a nose both for understanding the molecular origins
of floral scents and for engineering what could be blockbuster flower varieties,
researchers have been teasing out the complex biochemical orchestration
underlying one of life's simplest pleasures. They've been uncovering
fragrance-related genes, the enzymes encoded by those genes, the in-cell
reactions that these enzymes catalyze, and the fragrant performance of all this
molecular biology—a vast aromatic harmony of alcohols, aldehydes, fatty acids,
terpenoids, benzenoids, and other volatile, and therefore sniffable,

I have no death wish and offer no urging to gardeners who find these developments unnatural and unneeded. Gardeners make our world significantly better for all of us.

I will hazard a prediction. As biotech churns out more numerous and spectacular results, resistance to GM flora could fade slowly. Reluctance to adopt this technology is crucial to refine both safety and goals. But this scientific cat is out of the bag.

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