Tampering with Mother Nature
February 20, 1996
Web posted at: 10:50 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Ann Kellan
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- A plant in bloom is usually a sign of a healthy, mature plant. But scientists at the Salk Institute in San Diego are changing that, by manipulating a flowering gene.
All plants have genes that tell it when to flower, what the flower should look like, and where on the plant to make the flower.
In this particular project, researchers isolate the gene that controls where on the plant to make flowers. They then manipulate that single gene.
Specifically, researchers remove the control center of the gene and splice in a virus' control center. That way the gene gets the message to multiply quickly and produce flowers right away.
However, the research does have its downside. Many of the early blooming plants and trees will never grow to full height and will not live very long, either.
For example, the aspen tree normally takes eight to 20 years to flower. However, after the Salk researchers tamper with it, the tree produces flowers in six months.
In the aspen plant, Detlef Weigel of the Salk Institute says researchers are finding that after six months the plant has flowers and looks more like a weed than the aspen tree. (133K AIFF sound or 133K WAV sound)
"You can't get much 2-by-4s out of that," Weigel said.
And, because researchers are changing the flowering cycle without regard for animals like birds and bees, crucial parts of the pollination and reproduction processes of plants, Mother Nature might just throw researchers for a loop.
So why mess with Mother Nature?
The research, Weigel says, will allow someone to grow many generations of plants quickly. If a plant breeder wants to develop a healthier plant -- let's say a pest-resistant fruit -- then the breeder would use the faster-flowering plants to get the desired qualities.
The fast-flowering gene would then be bred out, enabling the plant to grow to maturity and produce the new-and-improved fruit.
Normally, it takes years to simply produce fruit for the first time and another three to five years for growers to know whether their breeding program was successful.
In the short term, researchers hope to use genetically altered plants to do what farmers have already done -- improve the quality of what they grow at a faster rate.
In the long term, researchers hope to use the flowering gene as a switch. Ove Nilsson of the Salk Institute explains that farmers could turn the switch on when it's time for plants to bear flowers and fruit by spraying it with a harmless chemical spray. (187K AIFF sound or 187K WAV sound)
However, researchers admit that fooling with Mother Nature could produce unexpected consequences.