Daily Bang....Frankenflowers

There appears to be no end to the onslaught.
BY BART ZIEGLER Daily Herald May 27, 2007
Petunias that survive frost. Impatiens that shrug off drought. Disease-free geraniums. They sound like dream plants for gardeners.
But they also present a major challenge for the gardening industry. That's because these "miracle" flowers - now in the works, thanks to a new alliance between a German plant company and a California startup - are the product of genetic engineering. Ornamental plants that have had their DNA juggled could spark the same backlash created by genetically altered food crops such as corn and soybeans.
The broader debate over genetic engineering touches on science, politics and deeply held beliefs. And the last thing the horticulture business needs is accusations that it is selling "Frankenflowers." Sales by the U.S. garden industry have been flat to down the past few years, despite all those new houses with unlandscaped lawns. Some in the business blame young homeowners' lack of time, but others believe some would-be gardeners give up too soon, when their first attempts fail. Genetically engineered plants that are easier to grow could keep those novices in the game.
I was lucky when I began gardening eight years ago because, blessed by good soil and adequate rain, I had few plant failures. But genetically enhanced plants could make a difference - provided they are shown to have no detrimental side-effects - for friends who have been turned off to gardening for life by one bad season.
So far about the only genetically engineered ornamental plants on the market are carnations that have been injected with a petunia gene to give them purplish-blue hues not seen in nature. But these are sold only as cut flowers. Several obstacles have made it tough to genetically enhance flowers and shrubs. Chief among them is the high cost of the technology and the requirement to license the patents behind the genetic techniques. Since the ornamental-plant business is a fraction of the size of the agricultural one, these costs can't be spread over enough seeds or young plants to make the proposition viable.
One promising startup that tried to create new flower varieties with genetic engineering, NovaFlora of Philadelphia, gave up a few years ago. "The biggest roadblock we ran into was the barriers to intellectual property," says Michael Dobres, NovaFlora's chief executive. Now, it has turned to a technique called mutagenesis, in which it scrambles the genes that naturally occur in plants to create new varieties.
The new German-U.S. alliance hopes to overcome the roadblocks by linking Selecta Klemm, which sells starter plants to wholesale growers in the U.S. and elsewhere, with Mendel Biotechnology of California, which holds the rights to key genetic-engineering techniques. Mendel shares patents and technology with Monsanto, a giant in the world of genetically engineered crop plants.
Selecta began preliminary work with Mendel more than four years ago, says Christian Klemm, Selecta's chief financial officer. On Jan. 1, the two companies launched Ornamental Bioscience, which Klemm runs from its Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters.
He says the joint venture has three advantages over earlier ones. One is its access to key patents and technology through Mendel and Monsanto. The second is its work with Florigene, the Australian company that developed the purplish-blue carnation. Third is its strategy: It aims to produce clear, functional benefits for commercial growers and consumers, such as tougher, more reliable plants, not just novel flower colors or shapes.
Ornamental Bioscience aims to switch on existing genes that are dormant - such as those that could make plants more resistant to cold or drought - rather than deploy the more controversial techniques used in genetically engineered food crops. The company has turned on certain genes in petunias and poinsettias and is growing the plants in greenhouses to determine if the transformed plants are, in fact, more tolerant of frost, cold air or drought. "We have no reason to believe it doesn't work," Klemm says.
Of course, gardeners, farmers and scientists have been manipulating the genes in plants for hundreds of years by crossbreeding varieties for desirable traits, usually by transferring pollen from one plant to another. In some ways, what Ornamental Bioscience is doing is a continuation of that trend.
Still, Ornamental Bioscience faces a long road to get such plants on the market. It must obtain regulatory approvals and then persuade plant growers and consumers that the new varieties are worth 25 percent to 50 percent more, Klemm estimates. These hurdles have turned off other big players in the garden world, including Ball Seed, the largest U.S. company in the business. "There are just better ways we could spend our research dollars," says a Ball spokeswoman.
Then there are the groups opposed to genetic engineering. It seems to me their concerns may be misplaced here. Since most people don't eat flowers, food safety isn't an issue. And since ornamental plants are raised in much smaller quantities than corn or soybeans, often inside greenhouses, it's much less likely that they would "escape" into the wild. But there's one legitimate worry: These new plants could crowd out naturally occurring varieties. We need to make sure the plant industry doesn't come up with another kudzu - that "miracle" plant that now smothers much of the South.
"My gut instinct would be that, assuming there isn't some highly public campaign (against genetic manipulation), most people would not be terribly upset about the idea of a frost-resistant petunia," says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which calls itself a neutral source of information on genetically modified plants. And that could turn gardening into a more sure-fire pursuit.
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