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2-Plants: Malaysian research on GE orchids

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

TITLE:  Lasting impression
SOURCE: The Star, Malaysia
DATE:   7 Sep 2004

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Lasting impression

RESEARCHERS at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development
Institute (Mardi) in Serdang are banking on biotechnology to make orchid
hybrids more colourful, last longer, and be disease-resistant.

The biggest hurdle to getting results is the orchid's long journey to
maturity, says Dr Umi Kalsom Abu Bakar, deputy director of Mardi's
Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering department.

"Many orchids take about two years to flower, so this time constraint is
a problem for us," she says.

Dr Umi and her team - research officers Dr Vilasini Pillai, Adrain Ling
and Rogayah Sakeli - together with researchers from Universiti Putra
Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, the
Malaysian Institute of Nuclear Technology and Universiti Sains Malaysia,
have been working towards improving the saleability of orchids here.

Dr Umi Kalsom Abu Bakar (left) and Dr Vilasini Pillai are part of the
orchid research team at Mardi in Serdang, Selangor. One of their
strategies includes lengthening the shelf life of popular varieties such
as the Dendrobium and Oncidium.

"Most hybrids can last between two to three weeks, depending on how they
are cared for, but the ethylene gas (the same gas that fruits produce to
help them ripen) that the flowers release will eventually cause them to
wilt, says Dr Umi.

The trick to making the flowers last longer is to suppress the ethylene
gas gene to slow down or reduce its production.

"We cannot suppress it 100%, and even if ethylene is not produced, the
flowers will eventually wilt because of cell degradation."

So far, the team has succeeded in cloning the right gene, and with luck,
may be able to add another two weeks to the flowers' shelf life.

Says Dr Vilasini: "To be saleable, the flowers have to be physically perfect.

"Many species are very fragile, so they don't make it to the market
because of bruising due to rough handling. If we can strengthen them,
then this would definitely give the flower industry a boost."

To boost the orchid's appeal further, researchers at Mardi and UPM have
been tweaking with its colours.

"Most orchids are purple, pink, yellow and other pastel colours. We want
to introduce novel colours that are striking and unique," says Dr Umi.
"This can be done by knocking out certain colour genes to tone up or tone
down a flower's hue. The yellow-orange tinge of the Oncidium as an example.

"What we can do is knock out the orange or yellow pigment gene of the
flower to make it a pure white, which will then make it perfect as a
filler in bouquets." Another desired outcome is a chilli red Dendrobium.

"We are still trying to establish the right techniques and prove that
these concepts will work. This will probably take another five years to
produce results."

Researchers at UPM are also trying to manipulate orchid genes to change
the shape or architecture of their flowers.

This architecture modification, says Dr Umi, can help achieve the desired
shape and size of orchids as dictated by farmers and orchid lovers, in
addition to their already diverse characteristics.

A crucial aspect of orchid research involves imparting the flowers with
diseaseresistant mechanisms.

Orchids are prone to attacks by the cymbidium and ondotoglossum viruses,
both of which can reduce the size and number of flowers, and leave them
with unsightly brown spots.

"Conventional breeding cannot produce virus-resistance varieties because
there are no naturally-occurring resistant orchids," says Dr Umi.

To make an orchid disease-resistant, a section of the virus's gene is
inserted into that of the plant, which causes the virus to mistake the
plant for an infected one, halting its replication process.

"We have already cloned the gene and transferred it to the plants. We're
just waiting for them to grow," says Dr Umi.


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