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Japanese scientists create a true blue chrysanthemum

Naonobu Noda, principal research scientist at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan, was very surprised when, after 16 years of trying, his team successfully created a true blue chrysanthemum through genetic engineering.

Noda’s team tried adding genes from dozens of blue flower species to chrysanthemums but none of them worked, according to a news release.

NAONOBU-NODANaonobu Noda with the blue chrysanthemum that his team developed at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan. Photo credit Shinichi Mishima.When scientists introduced genes to create a blue color, the flower would “shut them off by as yet unknown mechanisms” Noda said in the release. They would get violet or red flowers, but not blue ones.

When they snuck a gene from the naturally blue Canterbury bell — which belongs to the bellflower family — into a chrysanthemum, the petals ended up purple. So they decided to introduce a gene from the butterfly pea plant in order to add sugar to pigments in addition to the gene from the Canterbury bell. That sugar usually makes flowers redder but the chrysanthemum flowers turned true blue.

Studies show that those two genes together interact with separate colorless compounds in chrysanthemums to create a modified pigment called delphinidin-based anthocyanin, which gives blue hues to certain flowers. Noda believes that the same technique could be applied to other commercially important flower species — like roses or carnations or lilies — to produce blue variants.

Chrysanthemums are the most popular flower in Japan — accounting for 40 percent of all cut flower shipments —and they are also the national symbol for the country. The monarchy is referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne and a stylized mum blossom is embossed on Japanese passports. The blossoms are available in various colors, including pink, yellow and red, but it took an engineer to create a blue.

Those blue chrysanthemums could possibly reach local florists in about a decade, but Noda warned, “As they are genetically modified organisms, they are not easy to commercialize.” Measures must be taken to ensure that the GMO flowers do not crossbreed with wild chrysanthemums and produce seeds. So Noda’s team aims to create a blue chrysanthemum that can’t reproduce, which would make it more commercially viable.

Henry I. Miller, M.D., physician, molecular biologist and founding director of the Office of Biotechnology Products at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, said in a news release, “It’s not the source of the genetic material or whether DNAs from different organisms are mixed that confers risk. What is important is the function of the genetic alteration — for example, whether it could cause the organism to express a new toxin or allergen or become more weed-like in the field.”

Yet, “consumers love novelty,” said Nick Albert, plant biologist at the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research in Palmerston North, New Zealand, in a news release. “People actively seek out plants with blue flowers to fill their gardens.”

Along with the gardeners, florists are always excited to get their hands on new colors and varieties, and blue is especially sought after because of its rarity. Out of the 280,000 species of flowering plants on Earth, less than 10 percent make blue flowers.

“Obtaining blue-colored flowers is the Holy Grail for plant breeders, said Mark Bridgen, plant breeder at Cornell University, in a news release. The results from the Japanese chrysanthemum research study are “very exciting,” Bridgen added.