Suntory Holdings unveiled its blue rose ‘Applause’ at a press conference on October 20, 2009, almost a year ago now. The first thing one notices, in spite of all the coverage, including the internet ‘acclaim’ long before the reality, and the fact its petals, genetically, are supposed to contain blue pigment (from an advertisement: “…Suntory Holdings said to be the world’s first roses with nearly 100 percent blue pigment in the petals…”), these roses are, to the naked eye, not truly blue at all, but a shade of lilac. Please see an image of one below.
Perhaps the ‘applause’ should have been held until an authentic blue rose, one that in appearance matches what has been sought in reality, indeed makes its appearance. True the search has been something of a Holy Grail to breeders for at least a century and really quite a long time before this century; and the comparison to the search for the Holy Grail is as ubiquitous as the claim that search has ended at last with the cultivar of Suntory and Florigene. Still this is not an authentic blue rose, and the real claim that should be voiced is simply this ‘cultivar’ now has, perhaps, the potential of breeding what will be, sometime in the future, an authentic blue rose.
Blue Moon Etc.
Of course blue roses don’t exist in nature. The gene making the color possible doesn’t exist in roses; a fact that has only relatively recently come into the light. Florigene isolated the gene responsible for the expression of the color blue in 1991.
Traditionally the alternative has been dyeing white roses creating ‘faux blue’ roses; in fact, a book from the 12th century, by Zubair ibn al-Awam, The Book of Andalusian Agriculture, and translated into French by J. J. Clement-Mullet in 1874, describes a process for creating blue roses by placing blue dye in the bark of the roots.
The desire for blue roses has been around a long time! There is also supposed to have been a prize of 500,000 francs offered back in 1840 by the horticultural societies of Britain and Belgium to the first person able to create a blue rose.
Of course conventional breeding methods for creating a blue rose ‘naturally’ have long been attempted but yielded, well, only roses of a lilac hue, such as the ‘Blue Moon’ variety of hybrid tea roses. The Blue Moon variety is very reminiscent of the Suntory ‘Applause’.
The blue rose has a meaning in the so-called language of flowers; having fallen out of use nowadays, in Victorian times coded messages could be sent in this language allowing expression of feelings that otherwise could not be spoken. In this language the blue rose, courtesy of Wikipedia, has meant: “Mystery, attaining the impossible, love at first sight.”
The collaboration between Santory and Florigene that resulted in the blue rose is in fact no mean feat and has been an ongoing project for some twenty years. Really it is only by using one of the latest techniques in genetic engineering, so-called gene silencing, that the blue rose was birthed. And still we are not really at the end of the road. It has proven a little more difficult to create a blue rose than Florigene may have imagined when first setting their sights on the target.
Suntory vs. the Blue Rose Petals
The blue rose developed by Santory is more of a triumph of the current age’s belief in Science than anything else; seeing is believing notwithstanding. It is easy to imagine people buying these up, sending them to co-workers, friends and lovers etc, proclaiming their ‘blueness’ when in fact they don’t look blue at all. Still the faith is the line will eventually succeed in producing the real thing. Roses that not only are blue, but even look blue as well.
For the time being these are the real thing! Twenty years of hard work and Santory and Science can’t be wrong. There is a species of counterfactual, even surreal humor in the marketing of these blue roses that aren’t blue. Rene Magritte would have smiled.
Bans on Genetically Modified Plants
The other interesting thing about the Suntory blue roses, beyond being not blue, is their being genetically modified; their cultivation might not be allowed in some countries because of controls placed on genetically modified plants. Monsanto has spoiled this game a bit, for everybody, with its ‘Terminator’ seed technology.
From Genetically Modified Plants & Sterile Seeds on healthy-eating-politics.com:
“This “Terminator” technology produces genetically modified plants that have sterile seeds, which do not flower or grow fruit after the initial planting, requiring customers to purchase new seed from Monsanto for every planting in which they use Monsanto seed varieties.”
And from The Guardian re a recent meeting in Europe on this very subject:
“We hope this will break the deadlock over GM, but it’s missing a defence of fundamental principles [of choice]. In some countries there might be more cultivation, but in many it will mean the end of the right of farmers to grow them at all.”
From physorg.com: “Blue shades should be achievable if Florigene and Suntory researchers can make the rose’s petals less acidic. Rose petals are moderately acidic, with a pH around 4.5, while carnation petals are less so, with a pH of 5.5.
Florigene and Suntory researchers have ‘fished around’ for roses with higher petal pH, but the low-acidity trait appears to be genetically limited in roses. Researchers are now using RNAi gene-knockout technology to identify genes that influence petal acidity, or that modulate petal colour in other ways.”
The delphinidin gene cloned from a pansy, an enzyme gene from an iris to trigger the reaction, and a synthetic gene, suppressing the DFR gene in a pink rose, this was the 1-2-3 combination that did the trick. Of course the residue of cyanidin, and the natural ph of roses have combined and left not a blue rose, but one just like what you see above, in the picture.
In other words, even with the ‘TKO’ Florigene and Suntory may have scored with its Blue Roses so-called, the real thing, roses that are in fact blue, may yet be years away. And of course, it goes without saying, Suntory and Florigene, after some 20 years of research, were probably anxious to at last get their roses on the market, blue or not.
Originally Calgene Pacific Ltd, one of Australia’s first biotechnology companies, after acquiring Florigene, a Dutch rival in 1993, they took their name; Florigene had an international reputation. They were in turn acquired by Nufam in ’99 and Suntory, through Nufam, a global agrochemicals giant, now has a 98.5% equity holding in Florigene.
Here is what Florigene has to say of their research effort, from their website:
“In July 2004 Suntory scientists joint project team announced to the world the development of the first rose in the pipeline to a true blue rose.”
Also from their website:
“Florigene’s original mission was to create the world’s first “blue rose” through genetic modification. With our then partner Suntory Limited, our scientists succeeded in isolating the blue gene (from the petunia flower) in 1991 and patents were filed in all major countries in 1992.”
Probably, out of all this talk of blue roses, the use of gene silencing technology to ‘knockout’ the expression of the rose’s DFR gene, and our faith in Science to lead us eventually to a rose that is truly blue, and not the counterfeit Suntory has put on the market, these two points stand out.
The ‘quiet’ revolution molecular genetics is ushering in, under our noses, so close most of us don’t notice the first repercussions, is without doubt sobering and even a wee bit frightening; considering Monsanto’s bid to monopolize the market really way beyond sobering and frightening to something else entirely. The word evil springs to mind as being closer to reality.
Yet another aspect of this ‘quiet’ revolution, on a totally different front, is the possibility of creating a colony of Neanderthals in our very midst; their genome is being recreated and the idea of doing such a thing, ‘cloning’ a colony, is being considered in some depth, in some scientific quarters; see Should We Clone Neanderthals at Archaeology Magazine on-line. Perhaps the authentic blue roses, hawked at a ridiculously high price of course, will arrive just in time to welcome this equally unique colony to the age of the impossible.