Monsanto is working on anti-aging technology for flowers using a genetic technology it can feed to plants through vase water.
The St. Louis biotech company, known for its transgenic corn and soybeans, and for being the target of anti-GMO campaigners, disclosed in a patent application that it’s testing a new way of stopping roses, carnations, and petunias from wilting.
That could help get flowers to supermarkets, florists, and mortuaries just as they’re ready to bloom. Attempts to do that now are the bane of the fresh-cut-flower industry, which relies on airplanes, tanks of anti-aging gas, and toxic chemicals to do it.
Globally, exports of cut flowers, bulbs, and live plants were worth $20 billion in 2013, with Holland, Ecuador, and Colombia exporting the most, according to a report from Rabobank. Eighty percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported.
Although flowers may be a footnote to Monsanto’s big product lines, like the herbicide RoundUp, the fresh flower effort offers a peek into the company’s attempt to develop temporary, spray-on genetic alterations, a program it calls BioDirect.
Unlike a GMO or a plant whose genome is permanently changed, the new approach involves temporarily modifying the function of specific plant genes by spritzing them with genetic molecules called RNA, or feeding the molecules to their roots.
Starting two years ago, Monsanto scientists Jill Deikman and Nicholas Wagner attempted to use RNA to interfere with the ability of cut flowers to make ethylene, an odorless gas known to plant scientists as “the aging hormone.”
This gas is sometimes used commercially to speed the ripening of fruit picked green, like tomatoes and bananas. Ethylene is also what causes apples to rot and the bloom to fall from the rose.
Monsanto claims in its patent document that it had some success blocking the hormone by doping vase water with RNA designed to block ethylene production. Plants got ratings after two weeks: “ideal open bloom,” “slight curling,” and “fully dessicated.”
The RNA concept is potentially a big deal if Monsanto manages to bottle up molecules that make plants bloom on command, or do other tricks. Monsanto is also testing gene sprays able to kill insects like potato bugs and flea beetles. A spokesperson for Monsanto said the flower effort represents “early discovery work” by teams that have tried to identify new applications of RNA in agriculture.
If the technology works and can be integrated into the supply chain, “it will meet a real need in the flower industry,” says Hilary Rogers, a scientist at Cardiff University in the U.K. who studies stress in plants. She says the industry faces huge challenges coping with a “very perishable crop.”
Rogers says the flower industry could use new ideas for reducing waste. The hidden environmental costs of Mother’s Day flowers, like shipping flowers across the world by air, spur some critics each year to say that buying flowers isn’t worth it.