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2-Plants: The race to create the first blue GE rose

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TITLE:  The race to create the first blue rose
        Biotech also being used to restore sweet smell of roses
SOURCE: Associated Press,
DATE:   Nov 25, 2002

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The race to create the first blue rose
Biotech also being used to restore sweet smell of roses

ASSOCIATED PRESS SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 25 —Roses are red, and a variety of 
other colors. But they've never been blue — an omission legions of rose 
breeders have sought for centuries to remedy. "It would be a beautiful 
thing to see," said James Armstrong, an award-winning flower show exhibitor 
and consultant with the San Francisco Rose Society.

BREAKTHROUGHS IN BIOTECHNOLOGY may finally resolve the quest for the 
elusive blue rose, which alas does not exist because roses lack the 
corresponding pigment genes. Technology also promises to restore sweet 
smells to the rose and other flowers. Generations of commercial breeding 
has led to beautiful but bland-smelling roses. Their colors are stunning 
and vase lives long, but they've little fragrance. Genetic engineers are 
also busy bringing science to bear on diseases and pests that affect the 
world's 120 different rose species, which have blossomed into a $10 billion-
a-year business worldwide. Still, it's the blue rose that remains the 
biggest prize. At Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, scientists 
studying how drugs metabolize in the liver stumbled across a human protein 
that may hold the key to creating the world's first-known blue rose. 
Elizabeth Gillam, working in the lab of biochemist F. Peter Guengerich, 
amazed her boss one day with a flask full of bacteria that she turned blue 
with an enzyme taken from a patient's liver. They're now trying to insert 
into roses the human gene that produces that blue enzyme. "I would have 
called you crazy five years ago if you told me I would be pursuing a blue 
rose," said Guengerich, who spends most of his time researching disease-
fighting drugs. "It's not something we set out to do." Guengerich marvels 
that so many gardening enthusiasts lust after the blue rose, the pursuit of 
which has reached near-mythical proportions.

"For some reason this is the holy grail for this type of work," Guengerich 
said. "We could try to create blue cotton, blue anything really." So far, 
though, they've only managed to get a few blue spots into the stems. "It's 
not as easy you may think," Guengerich said. "It's going to take more 
work." Guengerich and Gillam are nonetheless talking to biotechnology 
companies about helping them develop a blue rose. They're not alone — 
Florigene, an Australian company, was launched in 1986 to develop a blue 
rose. Its scientists have tried to splice a "blue" petunia gene into roses, 
with little success so far.


Sweeter-smelling roses are perhaps closer to market. Researchers around the 
world are working to identify scent genes in roses and other flowers. A key 
step has been mapping their genomes. A group of Israeli researchers 
published a paper in the journal Plant Cell in September that compared the 
genome of the strong-scented Fragrant Cloud rose to that of the nearly 
odorless yellow rose. Then, they isolated genes that occurred only in the 
fragrant rose and may be responsible for scent. The trick now is to splice 
the scent genes into non-fragrant varieties, a not-so-easy task. 
"Unfortunately, we don't have the technology to transform the rose," David 
Weiss of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, co-author of the Plant Cell 
paper, said in an e-mail interview. "We are working on it." At Clemson 
University, researcher Sriyani Rajapakse has developed DNA "fingerprints" 
so growers can protect their special rose breeds from being stolen. She 
also has produced a rough draft of the entire rose genome. Rajapakse said 
rose genomes will allow growers to more easily and quickly weed out 
undesirable plants. Now, growers typically have to wait until all of their 
roses bloom to decide which plants to keep and which to discard. 
"Biotechnology holds great promise for roses," Rajapakse said. Other 
biotechnology projects that may soon be underway include the creation of 
thornless roses. Robert Skirvin, a professor at the University of Illinois 
at Urbana-Champaign, hopes his work with thornless blackberry bushes can be 
used to de-thorn the stems of roses — some of which are found in nature. In 
fact, many researchers are working on similar problems in hopes of adding 
more panache to the ornamental flower industry. Of the top ten selling 
flowers, only the freesia has a naturally occurring blue variety. While 
there's growing criticism of biotechnology's use on crops to produce food 
and pharmaceuticals, protest against tinkering with flowers' genes has been 
muted. That's probably because flowers aren't generally being consumed. A 
few complaints have come from purists, but serious hobbyists like Armstrong 
of the San Francisco Rose Society view biotechnology a great way to grow 
better, hardier flowers. "They still have to be extremely careful that 
there isn't inadvertent hybridization," said Armstrong, who exhibits roses 
in shows. "But I'm not a purist. It would be nice to see a blue rose and 
the only way that's going to happen is through genetic engineering."


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