Genetic Engineering May Represent the Future of the Industry

June 25, 2004 - 07:46

Scientists and researchers from around the world have been experimenting with genetic engineering of plants in recent years. They may be closer to representing the future of the industry with some of their recent findings. Scientists are hoping that genetic engineering provides a way to make plants more resistant to disease. Others hope to change the color and fragrance of flowers.

Mark Brand, ornamental horticulture specialist and scientist from the University of Connecticut, has genetically treated several rhododendrons by splicing frog protein into the plant's cells, according to the Associated Press. He hopes that the protein, discovered a few years ago by a pharmaceutical company, will make the rhododendron more resistant to disease. He also would like to develop a deer-resistant plant.

It is difficult to determine how a transgenic rhododendron would interact with its environment. There might be a risk of the plant becoming an invasive species or causing harm by cross-pollinating with other species. "There's not enough information out there right now," Brand said in an Associated Press story. In order to commercialize his rhododendrons, Brand would need to get them though the federal regulatory process, which could take up to 10 years before getting a review from the Department of Agriculture.

Another key to the future of genetic engineering is the announcement this year from a Danish company stating that it developed flowers that can detect land mines, with the petals changing color when the roots meet chemicals evaporating from the mines. With the help of a jellyfish's fluorescent protein, researchers at the University of Florida are developing flowers that would glow at the first signs of disease or drought. According to the Associated Press, they hope to send the flowers to Mars for research on the planet's surface.

Yet another recent report comes from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi), where researchers are using bio-engineering to produce orchids with unusual colors like deep red and dark blue, due to an increased demand for solid-colored orchids.

According to the New Straits Times, the center is waiting for the latest batch of the bio-engineered plants to bloom. "Once they have bloomed, we will be able to analyze them to know how colors are formed in orchids and where we need to genetically enhance them to get the desired colors," said Abu Bakar, deputy director of Mardi's bio-technology center in Serdang, Malaysia. Research is expected to take 1-2 years.

The center is also studying the molecular biology of orchids to extend the flower's shelf life and improve their shape, structure and resistance to diseases. To do this, scientists transfer genetic material or genes into single orchid cells. This transgenic technology allows them to develop hybrids with novel characteristics such as vibrant colors, which are impossible with pollination, according to the New Straits Times.

"This will add value to the orchids," said Abu Bakar in the New Straits Times. "Farmers can generate more income while consumers will have more variety and better quality hybrids."

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