Violets are Blue and Roses Can Be Too
September 7, 2016
Roses are red and violets are blue, says the old romantic poem. But nowadays, roses can be blue, too, thanks to modern biotechnology.
Blue pigments known as delphinidins are not naturally found in certain flowers like roses, carnations, lilies and orchids. So scientists isolated the gene responsible for delphinidin production in the petunia and transferred it to the carnation for ornamental purposes. The result? A beautiful array of naturally produced bluish colors from mauve to violet. (Fake blue carnations have been available since the 1970s due to food color, not natural pigments.)
The first biotech blue carnations were commercialized in 1996, the same year as the first biotech commodity crops were planted. Australia was the first country to adopt them, followed by Japan, the United States, the EU and Russia.
The development of the blue carnation was the first step to creating a blue rose as carnation genes are much easier to work with than those of roses. Moreover, the petunia gene didn’t work in roses so another solution had to be found.
First, scientists had to stop the production of red and orange pigments in roses by dialing down the relevant gene with RNA interference (RNAi). Then they inserted a delphinidin gene from a blue pansy and another gene from an iris that produces delphinidin. It took these three genes and 20 years of work to develop the blue rose!
The work is paying off as this flower is highly desirable in geographies like Asia where someChinese fairytales portray blue roses as a symbol of love fulfilled. The biotech roses have been sold in Japan since 2009 and in North America since 2011.
Biotechnology is also being applied to other ornamental flowers like petunias and chrysanthemums. Beyond flower color modifications, traits being worked on include insect resistance, abiotic stress resistance like frost tolerance, pollination control and altered plant structures.
With these biotech innovations, there will more and more ways to say “I love you” with flowers.