NOTE: Dr Michael Antoniou is reader in medical and molecular genetics at King's College London. See his recent article 'Economics, not common sense, drives GM crops'
COMMENT from Dr Antoniou: We have always said that the development of GM crops is a purely commercially motivated enterprise. The attached article which reviews progress in the generation and marketing of GM ornamental plants just proves this point since there is absolutely no benefit to humanity from this exercise. What a total waste of time and resources with potentially dangerous environmental consequences.
EXTRACT: Navigating the regulatory process particularly cuts into profit margins. "We estimated that it would take about two years and cost $250,000 each year," says Dobres, to conduct the molecular analysis experiments and field tests required by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dobres adds, however, that the situation is "not totally bleak." As a member of the steering committee for a private-public coalition coordinated by the USDA, the Specialty Crops Regulatory Initiative, he is working with others to bring regulatory relief to specialty GM crops and save companies and regulatory agencies time and money.
Nature Biotechnology 25, 963 - 965 (2007)
3 September 2007
1.Great Falls, Montana
Recombinant technology has not yet taken root in ornamental plant breeding, but if some early genetically modified products succeed in the marketplace, might this change?
Suntory, Osaka, Japan
Roses are red, or maybe not. Genetic modification can do what nature cannot - make a blue rose.
A collaboration between US biotech firm Mendel Biotechnology, of Hayward, California, and the large German plant breeder Selecta Klemm, of Stuttgart, Germany, aims to exploit the power of plant functional genomics to create a new range of products for the worldwide ornamental plant, or floriculture, market. Focused on developing flowering plants that can adapt to changing environmental conditions, joint venture Ornamental Biosciences, is a rare foray for biotech into modern floriculture. Whether there is room for more than a scattering of such ventures in a field dominated by work on food crops, only time will tell.
Hot and dry
In 2006, US consumers spent $20.8 billion on ornamental plants, according to the Society of American Florists in Alexandria, Virginia, and global sales rang up billions more. Yet just two companies are dedicated to applying biotech tools in floriculture, a business that sells cut flowers like roses and carnations, potted plants like poinsettias, and bedding plants like petunias and geraniums (Table 1). "There are not many companies in the space, because there were not many relevant technologies for people to use until [recently]" says James Zhang, vice president of business development at Mendel Biotechnology. However, now that information has become available on genes and pathways that affect traits such as stress tolerance and color creation in plants, floriculture researchers finally have some of the tools they need to create hardier and more unusual plants.
The ten-year-old Mendel Biotechnology holds patents on key genetic engineering methods for making field crops such as corn and soybeans drought tolerant. "We were the first company to develop drought-tolerant technologies for plants," says Zhang. The firm focuses on making genetically modified (GM) plants that resist biotic stress, such as insects and fungal diseases, and abiotic stress, such as drought and low temperatures.
Their 'Weatherguard' technology covers the C-box, or CRT binding factor (CBF), family of transcription factors, isolated originally from Arabidopsis thaliana. This family of regulatory factors binds to a genetic element called C-repeat/dehydration responsive element (CRT/DRE) found in the promoters of dozens of cold- and drought-responsive genes.
Unlike agriculture, where the same GM corn is planted year after year, traditionally floriculture is dynamic, and consumers covet new plant varieties.
Drought and cold tolerance share common molecular response pathways. Three members of the family (CBF1, CBF2 and CBF3) are induced within 15 minutes after plants are transferred to cold temperatures, and a fourth one (CBF4) is induced by drought. And both cold and drought stress induce the expression of the response to dehydration gene, RD29A, through activation of CBF proteins.
Because so many aspects of cold and drought tolerance are under transcriptional control, transcription factors are excellent tools for engineering plants to withstand these stresses. When overexpressed, heterologous CBF transcription factors switch on a plant's own defense systems. In rice, for example, the overexpression of a calcium-dependent protein kinase via an introduced CBF gene improves cold and drought tolerance1. CBF transcription factors have been successfully engineered into soybeans, canola, tomatoes, alfalfa, cherries, strawberries, rice and other crops by researchers at Mendel and elsewhere2. Now, Ornamental Bioscience is extending the technology to petunias and other bedding plants.
Ornamental Bioscience "is going after drought tolerance first," says plant molecular biologist Joche Bog, technical manager of the research facility in Stuttgart. Bog is starting with petunias, which are easy to transform and have a relatively short life cycle, to examine how transcription factors control drought tolerance. Once transformation protocols are worked out, they'll be transferred to impatiens, geraniums and poinsettias, he says.
Drought-tolerant plants fit right in with the environmentally friendly trend of 'xeriscaping', a type of landscaping that strives to reduce water use (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xeriscaping). In fast-growing areas of the western United States, up to half of residential water usage ends up on landscape plants and lawns. With drought-tolerant plants, "people don't have to worry about plants dying if they forget to water them or while [they are] on vacation," says Zhang.
Another project is investigating transcription factors that stop fungal pathogens such as powdery mildew, botrytis and sclerotinia from attacking plants. Reducing the need for insecticide use on plants protects the environment, a goal Ornamental Bioscience calls "ecological genetic support."
Once in a blue rose
The only floriculture company currently marketing a GM ornamental plant is Melbourne, Australiabased Florigene. Founded in 1986 by the Australian government and private investors, to apply biotech to floriculture and forestry, Florigene originally partnered with the USbased Calgene (now owned by St. Louis, Missouribased Monsanto). Today, Florigene is a subsidiary of Suntory, a beverage and food company headquartered in Osaka, Japan that has expanded into health foods and flowers. Eleven years ago, Florigene introduced a GM carnation, some 75 million of which have been sold in Australia, Japan and the US as Florigene-Moondust, -Moons
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