Once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and smell the roses. Or at least it used to be.
Nowadays, although your average rose may be full of luxurious colour, it has no scent, a result of breeding practices which over the years have focused on longevity and appearance to the detriment of scent.
Now, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida says that he and his team have isolated the gene that today’s crop of roses needs in order to re-introduce their scent. The problem? Financing, says biologist Harry Klee with the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida.
“Nobody was paying us to do this research and we were spending a lot of resources on doing it. (But) it can be done. We know exactly how to do it,” says Klee to Postmedia. “If a company wanted to pay us to do it, we could probably do it starting today. The science is very straightforward.”
Instead, Klee and his colleagues are hard at work on a different, more lucrative project: rejuvenating another victim of 20th century commerce, the tomato. Similar to the rose, the popular fruit/vegetable has had its flavour neglected for the sake of higher yields and a longer shelf life, something that has been a natural if unwanted byproduct of commercial agriculture.
“It’s hard to put blame on breeders,” says Ann Powell, biochemist at the University of California, Davis. “They’ve given us attractive products that are palatable and fairly nutritious year round.”
To fix the problem, Klee and team spent years figuring out exactly what constitutes “flavour” in a tomato, revealing in a recent study that they analyzed almost 400 varieties of tomatoes and used 100 taste-testing volunteers before arriving at a collection of 13 compounds associated with good flavour in a tomato. “What we found is if you look at what is flavour in a tomato, it’s a cumulative thing. I draw the analogy to a symphony; it’s a lot of notes and instruments that come together,” Klee says.
For the tomato, Klee plans to cross-breed existing plants to hopefully get back to a more flavourful fruit. The process could be quickly completed through genetic engineering — simply by adding the right genes into the tomato’s genetic code — but Klee is wary of that approach, saying that the public’s resistance to GMO products is likely too big of a hurdle to overcome and that the anti-GMO movement has “kind of won the battle.”
Although genetically modified foods have been staples in North American meals for years, in products like GMO corn, soy and sugar beets, those crops have mostly come as ingredients in processed foods, rather than as stand-alone items on grocery store shelves.
Yet, in a move that may speak to the consumer appetite for GMO produce, the never-browning Arctic apple, created by the BC company Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has recently been introduced in select stores in the United States. Experts say the trial run represents a make-or-break moment for GMO produce items.
As for the rose, genetic alteration to once again produce a sweet-smelling flower is a project ready and waiting for the right researchers to take it up. “The hard part is identifying the gene that makes the chemical, and that we have already done,” says Klee.