March/April – 1997
Story Title: Towards a Blue Carnation
Author: Roger Fox
The first genetically modified cut flower product to be approved for sale anywhere in the world has been released in Australia. Late last year, plant biotechnology company Florigene unveiled a new mauve coloured carnation called Moondust.
lorigene made worldwide headlines in 1991 after isolating the gene responsible for blue pigmentation in flowers, prompting wide speculation about the future development of a blue rose. Managing Director, Dr Edwina Cornish, described the development and commercialisation of a mauve carnation as a major step forward for the company.
“Production of commercial quantities of colour modified carnations is confirmation of the potential of the technology,” Dr Cornish said. “In scientific terms, the pigmentation we have introduced to carnations is in the blue family and as such has provided us with confidence that we are getting much closer to field production of a range of uniquely blue flowers.”
The Moondust Carnation cut flower will be sold at florists throughout Australia and will be released onto the large European and Japanese markets during 1997, where Florigene hopes to gain a slice of the $10 billion world market for carnations.
“We are positioning the product at the higher end of the market and expect it to realise a premium price over standard carnations,” Dr Cornish said.
The move into cut flower selling both locally and internationally is in line with Florigene’s overall commercial strategy, which is to capture a niche in the world cut flower market, worth around $30 billion annually. In Australia, propagation of Moondust Carnation is being handled by Van Wyk and Sons of Keysborough in Melbourne.
Florigene has directed its research to adding value to two of the world’s most popular flower crops – roses and carnations. The company has developed proprietary methods to introduce genes into these crops and currently has 50 patents issued or pending, in countries including the USA, Europe, Japan and Australia, protecting genes which can impact economically important traits in cut-flowers.
A colour modification program is an important part of Florigene’s activities. New and novel colours add considerable value in the marketing of flowers. As many of the world’s most popular flowers do not have the necessary gene(s), they can never produce the pigment responsible for mauve/blue colour. Florigene has developed technology to produce this pigment in the top selling flowers – rose, carnation and chrysanthemum.
Flower colour is due to two types of pigments: flavonoids and carotenoids. Carotenoids are found in many yellow or orange flowers, while the flavonoids contribute to the red, pink and blue hues. The class of flavonoids most responsible for these colours are the anthocyanins, which are derivatives of a biochemical pathway which only operates in plants. The cyanidin and pelargonidin pigments are generally found in pink and red flowers, while delphinidin is commonly found in blue flowers. Delphinidin pigments have never been found in roses or carnations. The necessary gene for delphinidin production has been isolated by Florigene from petunia and transferred to carnation.
Enhanced Vase Life
Florigene scientists have developed a range of carnations that no longer produce the plant hormone ethylene. As the production of this compound induces the flower to deteriorate, the genetically modified flowers, which produce no ethylene, last longer.
This is a significant advantage to the grower, who no longer has to use preservative chemicals, and as the new varieties require less chemical input, they are environmentally cleaner. This is of great interest to the Dutch industry, where the government is legislating to reduce the amount of chemicals used in horticultural production. The ability to guarantee a good vase life is also central to quality assurance programs, which are now being introduced by many growers.
The pathway for the biosynthesis of ethylene is well understood.
The enzyme ACC synthas converts SAM (S-adenosylmethionine) to ACC (1 aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid), which is in turn converted to ethylene by ACC oxidase. Florigene has isolated carnation genes for both ACC synthase and ACC oxidase. By use of a proprietary method for suppression of the expression of these genes, ethylene production is blocked in genetically modified carnations.
The development of this new technology, combined with the acquisition of patent protection, means that Florigene will be a key player in the commercialisation of new cut flower varieties created by plant gene technology.
It is predicted that a new range of rose varieties with mauve/blue coloured flowers could conservatively expect to capture 5% of the world rose market, and such colours are likely to attract a premium at the retail level.
As a result of publicity surrounding Florigene’s colour modification program, the company has received a number of enquiries seeking commercialisation rights overseas. In an industry worth US$10 billion worldwide, at the grower level, even a small penetration of the cut flower market by genetically modified varieties will be extremely valuable.The company is now working with leading carnation breeders to produce a complete range of ‘long life’ carnations using gene technology.
The long life carnation project has attracted considerable interest from the Dutch auctions, as well as supermarket chains. These groups are interested in varieties with the inbuilt guarantee of vase life, and will encourage growers to adopt the new varieties. From an Australian perspective, the modification offers growers an improvement in the quality of carnations destined for export to Japan.
For Florigene, progress towards the commercialisation of their genetically modified flowers, includes the securing of regulatory approvals for sales in Australia and the production of flowers for marketing in Spring of 1996. Material has been trialled in Holland, and an application for market release throughout the EC has been made.
Trial shipments of flowers have been made from Australia to Japan to determine the logistical barriers to export, while Florigene is also working on the regulatory requirements for release in the Japanese market. In Israel, the first trial of genetically modified plants is being carried out using Florigene material, and the company is also able to sell certain cut flowers in the USA.