Biotech Flowers: Are They Coming? By Dave Clark

Over the past few years,we have heard peopleraving about the fantasticresearch developmentsin the world of plant biotechnology.Proponents of biotechnology(including myself) have dreamed ofmarkets filled with biotech flowersthat are produced with far lesschemical and human input, haveleaves that stay green longer, makelarger and longer-lasting flowers,and have better fragrance.

Although several companieshave "dabbled" in biotechnologyventures, to date the number ofgenetically engineered floweringcrops on the market can be countedon one hand. At face value,this makes biotech flowers seemlike a flash in the pan that maynever come to fruition, but that isreally not the case.

Biotechnology still has the abilityto provide our industry withnew products, but the way welook at things now is much differentthan it was several years ago.My 10 years working with biotechhas taught me that and a lot more.

Why Go Biotech?

Ultimately, any new product, nomatter how it is developed, musthave consumer appeal. Although itmay be worthwhile for a geneticengineer to produce plants that are,for example, easier to grow with lesschemical input, the reality is thatconsumers already expect to choosefrom an array of beautiful plantswith showy flowers in a range ofcolors, and they expect those plantsto be free of insects and pathogens.

Ease of production and reducedchemical input are grower benefits.So what consumer trait would beimportant enough to justify the effortand expense of genetic engineering?Anything with the "wow" factor Ñwhether that is through a uniquelook or a perceived consumer value.Because most of the biotechnologiesdeveloped in floriculture to datehave not captured the consumer'sattention, few have been deemedfinancially feasible. Remember, theonly way to pay for any additionalcost, such as genetic engineering, isthrough additional sales.

The hard part about bioengineeringis that the value question has tobe answered up front, before all ofthe expensive high-tech work isdone. Without a clear understandingof the product concept by everyoneinvolved, from the lab all the waythrough the marketing chain to theconsumer, any group developing abiotech crop is facing an uphill battle.

Challenges Galore

Anyone who visited theCalifornia Pack Trials knows theamount of genetic variability in themarketplace is at an all-time high,and it keeps growing as breedersattempt to meet consumer demandfor new plants with novel characteristics.The lifespan on floriculturecrops is getting increasinglyshorter, making the use of biotechmore difficult.

Biotech crops have to beapproved by the EPA before beingreleased into the market. Theamount of up-front research, development,testing and analysis necessaryto obtain that approvalincreases the time to take a crop tomarket. More often than not, by thetime a gene is engineered into acommercial variety and that varietyis ready to enter the marketplace,some company has made animprovement, and the variety is nolonger of interest.

The only way to solve this problemis to slow down the speed withwhich new varieties are introduced,but this solution seems unlikely. Weare left with the realization that if abiotech variety cannot be broughtto market in a timeframe similarto one produced by conventionalbreeding, it is definitely at a disadvantage and may well notmove past the idea stage.

What Are The Possibilities?

Although the future of biotechnologyin floriculture crops maynot seem any clearer today than itwas a decade ago, I am convincedthat scientific breakthroughs inthis area have added some intrinsicvalue to the industry. No, scientistshave not put very manygenetically engineered crops onthe market; however, a number oftools have become available tobreeders as a result of breakthroughsrelated to biotechnology.

Perhaps the biggest recentadvance in biotechnology has centeredon decoding the sequence ofDNA in many commerciallyimportant plants. Since 2001,entire genomes for many importantagronomic plants have beensequenced, and by the end of thisdecade, we should have thesequence of important floriculturecrops, which will certainlymake breeding an even moreprecise process.

Many have argued thatbiotechnology is the mostimportant advancement evermade in agriculture. It certainlyhas transformed the way mostrow crops are produced, butfloriculture is a very differentmarket. Challenges unique tothis market — things like limitedmarket potential and abbreviatedcrop lifespan — meanthat while biotech certainly hasa place, it will probably not revolutionizeour industry the wayit has agriculture.

Researchers know exponentiallymore about genetic engineeringthan we ever thought wewould, and we believe thatbiotechnology still has an importantplace in this industry. Wherewe end up will depend on developingnew traits that are importantenough to wait for.

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Dave Clark

Dave Clark is associate professor inthe Environmental HorticultureDepartment at University of Florida,Gainesville, Fla. He can be reachedat [email protected]

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