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New flowers that changes colour on demand

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Scientists from the US working on a new variety of petunia that
changes colors throughout the day, from red in the morning to blue in
the evening, with various purple hues in-between. They’re calling it the
‘Petunia Circadia,’ because its pigment molecules (anthocyanins) will be expressed based on the plant’s circadian rhythm over a 12-hour period.
 
No chemicals, no complicated care – just sunlight, soil and a flower
that changes colour,” Nikolai Braun, co-founder and chief scientific
officer of a new biotech company, Revolution Bioengineering, told Diane Nelson at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). “Plants
have circadian rhythms, or cyclical expression of genes throughout the
day. These rhythms allow them to start photosynthesis when the Sun comes
up, for example, or release fragrance in the evening when their
pollinators are active. Petunia Circadia will harness this internal
clock to regulate flower colour.”
Braun and his colleague, Keira
Havens, haven’t mastered the Petunia Circadia just yet, but as you can
see above, they’re well on their way. So far, they’ve managed to
engineer a petunia that grows white, and turns pink over a 24 hour
period, when an ethanol solution is applied. It works because when the
flower is about to bloom, it’s unable to produce pigment-containing
anthocyanins, so appears white. But when ethanol is applied, this
repairs the pathways that are needed to distribute the pigment
throughout the flower’s cells.  
“The petunia typically produces
white blooms, but if you water it with the ethanol solution, the
existing flowers will go from white to red and new flowers will bloom a
purplish red,” Braun told Megan Gambino at Smithsonian Magazine.
“The flowers are typically all white because the enzymatic pathway to
produce anthocyanins is broken at an early step. When elements in the
cell come in contact with ethanol, they will cause the missing enzyme in
the anthocyanin pathway to be produced, and the flower will turn that
purple colour.”
All it takes is a little fresh water to shift the flower back into a pristine white.

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While
these cute new flowers aren’t meant to be anything other than a sweet
little curiosity, Braun and Havens hope they will help introduce people
to the benefits offered by genetically modified plants. “For almost
everyone outside of the farming world, it will be the first time they
will have interacted with a genetically modified organism, and by
engineering traits for consumers – flower colours, shapes, smells.” Braun told Gambino at Smithsonian Magazine.
“We hope to normalise that technology to eventually fully realise the
promise of plant biotech to provide food, fuels, and fibres in a
sustainable way.”
Gambino reports that the pair is looking into
how to create single plants that produce many different coloured
flowers, and flowers that produce new scents, and new patterns, such as
polka dots.
Plant geneticist Pam Ronald at UC Davis told press officer Diane Nelson
that projects like this could help educate people about her own
research. Recently, she managed to develop genetically engineered
bananas that are resistant to the Xanthomonas wilt disease, which has
already destroyed millions of acres of fruit trees in East Africa, where
they’re a staple food source.
“It can be hard to connect to the reality of people struggling in far-away places,” she told UC Davis.
“So when you tell people that genetic engineering can be used to fight
hunger by increasing vitamin content and reducing crop loss to insects,
sometimes it just doesn’t register. Maybe seeing this technology at work
in your own backyard can make the science more accessible.”

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