Orange Petunias on the Loose

Laboratory Report

By: Ann Northrup

Ann Northrup spent her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in microbiology….

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African Sunset, the petunia that was never meant to be. Photo: F.D. Richards/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

African Sunset, the petunia that was never meant to be. Photo: F.D. Richards/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Only someone who knew what to look for would recognize that something was wrong. But an observant plant biologist knew that the salmon-orange colored petunias growing outside of the Helsinki railway station were not natural. Samples of the plant were taken back to the lab for analysis and found to contain genetic material identical to an experimental trial done at the Max Planck Institute in 1987. In that trial a gene for pelargonidin, a red pigment found in many plants, was inserted into petunias to produce a color that would not normally be possible. A Dutch firm licensed the technology and by 1995 seed for salmon colored petunias was produced. The seed was never meant to be sold, as there wasn’t a market for genetically modified plants in the European Union. However, some of the altered petunias made it into conventional breeding programs in the United States where subsequent varieties with unusual colors were produced and sold; U.S. seed has since been destroyed. Although believed to be harmless, this escaped plant demonstrates that accidents do happen.

Greenhouse Grower, May 22, 2017