On 5 May 2012, Suntory Business Expert and the Niigata Agricultural Research Institute announced that they had succeeded in producing a blue lily, which they have been developing jointly since 2006. At the end of February 2012, the joint research team of Chiba University Graduate School of Horticulture and Ishihara Sangyou Kaisha, Ltd. announced that they had developed a blue moth orchid. The same team developed a blue dahlia in 2011. (See BJ November 2009
The development of GM flowers began in earnest in 1990. In that year, Suntory started joint development of a blue rose with the Australian Calgene Pacific Ltd. (later Florigene).
Since roses, tulips, lilies and other flowers lack the blue pigment delphinidin and the enzyme flavonoid 3',5'-hydroxylase that is necessary to make it, they cannot produce a blue pigment and therefore cannot be made to produce a blue flower through conventional crossbreeding. Delphinidin is one of the anthocyanin fruit and flower pigments. Besides delphinidins, the anthocyanin group also contains pelargonidins and cyanidins, and these three pigment types produce a wide range of colours. Of the three pigment types, only delphinidins are capable of expressing a blue colour.
At first, Suntory extracted the gene for the enzyme that produces delphinium from the petunia and introduced that into a number of flowering plants. Although this resulted in blue carnations, blue roses were not produced.
To produce the blue carnation, genes from the petunia and pansy are used. For the blue rose, genes from torenia are used and for the blue lily genes from the campanula are used.
Generally three sets of genes are used are used to produce blue GM flowers. The gene for the blue pigment itself is bundled into a set of genes with the genes necessary for switching this blue pigment gene on and off.
The blue rose uses (1) the torenia anthocyanin expression set, (2) the flavonoid enzyme expression set, and (3) an antibiotic resistance gene set as a marker. These three types of gene groups are introduced into the rose cell by splicing them onto a plasmid synthesized from two types of bacteria, Escherichia coli and Agrobacterium tumefaciens.
Thus, large numbers of genes are introduced into the plants in order to cause them to express the blue colour. Although the number of genes is itself a problem, in the first place these are genes that the rose does not actually need.
So why make blue flowers? Simply, it is the corporate strategy of companies that have turned they eyes to the size of the flower market. In 2009, the retail market for flowers in Japan exceeded one trillion yen at 1.0693 trillion yen (USD 13.37 billion) (Yano Research Institute). As the development of GM flowers heats up, however, impacts on biodiversity are feared.
The concern with GM flowers is that they intercross with a wide range of plants. The lily family is a large family, third only to the Poaceae (the rice family) and the orchid family. The rose family includes fruits such as apples, pears and biwa
(loquat). There is the possibility that the extent of intercrossing will gradually increase and that the whole family will be polluted with the artificially introduced genes. Moreover, in the case of the rose, it is possible to grow a new plant from a cutting. In other words, this is the first case of a GMO that can be bred and multiplied in anyonefs home.