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2-Plants: After 17 years of research still no blue GE roses



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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Roses are . . .
SOURCE: The Age, Australia, by Denise Ryan
        http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/05/08/1052280367658.html
DATE:   May 9, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


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   "When the blue gene from a petunia was isolated in 1991, paving the way
    for the first blue carnation, the scientists involved wept. 'There was
    a bunch of people standing around crying,' recalls Mike Dalling, who
    founded the start-up company Calgene Pacific in 1986. 'There was sheer
    exhilaration about the achievement. It was a hard thing to accomplish,
    not just technically but because people worked very long hours. I don't
    think our laboratories ever closed.' "
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Roses are . . .

A group of stubborn Melbourne scientists has spent 17 years in the quest
to create the blue rose. Denise Ryan reports.

When it comes to the holy grail of the flower world, the quest to create
a blue rose ranks with the search for the black tulip. A team of 12
scientists has been slogging over the puzzle for 17 years in a modest
laboratory in Collingwood. They have unlocked the secret to creating a
blue carnation, and experimented with inserting a blue gene into gerberas
and chrysanthemums, but a blue rose remains elusive.

The team's groundbreaking approach with carnations - inserting the blue
gene from petunias into the plant - does not appear to work with roses.
So, thinking laterally, the scientists' latest tactic is to isolate the
blue gene from the sea anenome and insert it in a rose. The results so
far from a joint project with the University of Queensland look
promising, but - even if such a rose can be created - it is a long
journey from the laboratory to flower markets.

Some may disapprove of the genetic modification of flowers, and others
will argue that flower lovers should be satisfied with the native blue of
the iris or with the many shades of purple roses. But this small team of
scientists determinedly toil, believing it is a privilege to be paid to
unravel the mysteries of flowers.

When the blue gene from a petunia was isolated in 1991, paving the way
for the first blue carnation, the scientists involved wept.

"There was a bunch of people standing around crying," recalls Mike
Dalling, who founded the start-up company Calgene Pacific in 1986. "There
was sheer exhilaration about the achievement. It was a hard thing to
accomplish, not just technically but because people worked very long
hours. I don't think our laboratories ever closed."

The Melbourne discovery - a significant scientific coup for Australia, up
there with the 1886 creation of the Granny Smith apple - came in the nick
of time. The Australian team slapped patents on their discovery, beating
a Japanese scientific team by three days.

"We felt the pressure of others doing similar research but we never
realised how close the Japanese were," Dalling says.

The Dutch company Florigene, which had also been working on a blue
carnation, lost the support of its investors in the wake of the
Australian discovery, enabling the small Australian firm to buy it and
change its own name to Florigene. This provided access to Europe's
lucrative cut-flower market.

Since its early success, Melbourne's Florigene has foundered several
times, becoming a textbook example of the difficulties Australian
biotechnology companies face in securing and retaining investor support.
Research is costly, takes years and offers uncertain returns.

"Like a lot of start-up companies, we were always broke," Dalling says.
"There was relentless financial pressure. We thought that once we had a
blue carnation the world would be at our feet. But instead, we lurched on."

In 2000, when Florigene was about to go bankrupt, Nufarm took control and
provided the working capital for research to continue. Dalling, who had
left Florigene in 1994 to join Nufarm, is now the managing director of
Florigene and the group general manager of research and development at Nufarm.

Not everyone has the constitution to work for a company that has almost
run out of money several times, says Florigene's research manager John
Mason. "The atmosphere is different to most workplaces," he says. "There
is a lot of energy and people are highly organised. They will go the
extra mile."

A stubborn streak is needed. After the blue gene was isolated in 1991, it
was another four years before the first blue carnation bud appeared. It
took a further two years before the first blue carnation - a mini-
carnation called Moondust - was commercially available. Different shades
of mauve flowers, including Moonshadow, Moonlite, Moonvista and Moonaqua,
are now available.

Two or three clones were made from those first blue flowers and then up
to eight cuttings were taken from each plant. Permission then had to be
sought from the Federal Government's genetic manipulation advisory
committee to grow the genetically engineered plants outside the company's
glasshouses.

Florigene is the only Australian biotechnology company that develops and
sells genetically modified flowers around the world. For the past two
years, it has grown flowers in Ecuador and Colombia, both renowned for
their quality flowers, and has sold them in the US and Japan.

Opposition to blue carnations has been minor because they produce almost
no pollen. "They are essentially sterile and are harvested when the
flowers are closed, so there is no risk of cross-pollination. As well,
there is no native relative."

The fortunes of the blue carnation owe more to fashion trends than
concerns about genetic manipulation. Some florists simply won't touch
carnations because they are not deemed trendy. But that changed recently,
Dalling says, because brides have recently switched from pastel bouquets
to hot colours and exotic flowers, opening a niche for blue flowers.

The general manager of Tesselaar Flowers, Steve White, says blue
carnations have recently gained popularity. "We sell nearly as many of
the three blue varieties as the others combined."

The researchers recognise that a blue gerbera or lily would be
commercially popular but there is a long lead time between inserting the
blue gene and achieving flowers. So far they have achieved colour shifts
in gerberas but not a true blue. "Getting them into production could take
years," Mason says.

The blue gene could potentially be inserted into any plant matter -
imagine blue leaves, geraniums or cacti - and scientists predict it will
be possible to match a flower colour to a paint colour chart within 20 years.

Meanwhile, the team's other breakthrough involved discovering how to make
flowers last longer. It developed a range of carnations that no longer
produce the plant hormone ethylene, which induces flowers to deteriorate.
But a chemical process used by many florists matches the longevity of
Florigene's more natural approach. "Most flowers are treated with small
quantities of the chemical silver thio sulphate when harvested, to have
more than a three-day vase life. These chemicals have been banned in
Holland because they are toxic. But the consumer here has no perception
of why they should pay more for flowers using our technology," Mason says.