Can Genetic Engineering Make Better Flowers?

Do looks beat scent when it comes to flowers? Many flower breeders' initial attempts to improve on color or other attributes diminished the original flower's scent. Elena Larina/Shutterstock

Regardless of which side of the fence you're on about genetically engineered food, there are plenty of arguments for the idea of manipulating nature in the name of solving food problems.

But what about flowers? Not something that we can eat, or use as feed, but regular flowers grown and cut only to fill vases and occupy the hands of brides walking down the aisle. Decorative flowers are a frivolous crop, yet one that Americans spent $32.1 billion on in 2011.

Following in the steps of geneticists, who have been tinkering with food plants to create hardier and more profitable varieties, a new crop of floral geneticists are working on flower varieties that contain genetic material introduced from other species. Flower breeders have been practicing hybridization of plant species for ages, but the new era of genetic modification reeks of a scary sci-fi future where mankind gets a bit too big for its britches. Hello, Frankenflowers.

The flower is one of nature’s most perfect creations. How in the world could science ever improve upon it? Here’s what the biotech florists are working on.

Adding scent

Few things are as intoxicating as the fragrance of a flower, but over the last 50 years, flower breeders have been gung-ho on selectively breeding for other attributes, at the cost of scent. When you select for one trait, you generally forfeit others.

"For a long time, breeders have mostly focused on how flowers look, their size, color and how long blooms last," said David Clark, a professor of environmental horticulture. "But scent has gotten left behind. Go to a florist and try to smell the flowers. You probably won’t get what you expect."

But a team of researchers, including Clark, at University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have discovered some of the genes that control the complex mixture of chemicals responsible for creating a flower’s scent, paving the road for novel ways of manipulating a flower’s aromatic compounds to produce desired fragrances.

Researchers can adjust the levels of these compounds, controlling a flower’s fragrance while also producing more or less of it. The result? Bigger, brighter flowers with long vase lives and scent. Better smelling roses are just a few DNA tweaks away.

Creating impossible colors

Because of genetic limitations, blue roses do not exist in nature, no matter how earnestly breeders have been trying to create them. They are the holy grail of the rose world. Although nominal "blue" roses have been bred by conventional hybridization methods, they have little more than a purple tinge. And white roses can be dyed blue, but a true blue rose is rarer than a blue moon.

But after 20 years of research, Japanese company, Suntory, and its Australian subsidiary, Florigene, have managed to create a blue rose. Named “Applause,” the blue color was attained by inserting a delphinidin-producing gene from a pansy into an Old Garden ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ rose. When the flowers debuted in Japan, they sold for between 2,000 and 3,000 yen ($22-$33) per stem.

Although Applause is more of a silvery-purple-blue than a vibrant azure, it’s the closest thing to blue yet to come from the hands of breeders and scientists. And the company promises to continue working on make it bluer. Until then, a rose is a rose is a pansy.

Removing pesky pollen

Scientists looking to increase the life of flowers ended up with a variety of geranium that offers the promise of sneeze-free blooms for allergy sufferers.

Using a genetically modified bacterium to "infect" geraniums, researchers at the Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular de Plantas in Spain created plants that are not able to spread allergens.

To do this, they genetically altered Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the bacteria that causes the plant ailment crown gall disease, to carry a modified gene that would increase the production of the plant hormone cytokinin, which has an anti-aging effect on plant cells. They modified another gene that would interfere with the production of pollen and anthers. The bacteria carried these modified genes into the Pelargonium cells, changing their DNA. The researchers then grew new plants from these modified plant cells.

The researchers note that the new variety of geraniums is also sterile and unable to breed with plants in the wild.

Making flowers that glow in the dark

As if unusually boosted scent, unnatural color, and pollen-free flowers weren’t freaky enough, Australian company Bioconst is working on glow-in-the-dark flowers using fluorescent genes isolated from ... jellyfish.

The core area of research and development currently at the company is to create genetically engineered glowing plants that rely on 'green fluorescent protein' (GFP) to make flowers fluoresce a bright green. GFP is derived from the jellyfish, Aequorea victoria. The company already has a glowing flower, called Galassia (video below), that is treated with a fluorescent spray, but the jellyfish-flower puts the others to shame.

Let's just hope they don't accidentally splice aromatic compounds of the jellyfish into the flowers as well.