They may not be exactly blue in color, but the long-awaited commercial release of the blue rose is set to take place in Japan next week (November 3). Thought to be impossible to create because they lack the blue pigment delphinidin, Australia-based Florigene and its Japanese parent company Suntory Holdings (known more for its beer than its floral conquests) began working together in 1990 to create a blue rose by introducing a blue gene from panzies and then irises into roses. It took until 2004 before the team could announce the successful development of blue roses. But before you go ordering a dozen or so for your loved one, check out the price – around ¥2,000-3,000 (US$22-32) each.
Breeding a blue rose has been described by many horticulturalists as the ‘Holy Grail’ of rose breeding. The breakthrough can be credited to Florigene and Suntory successfully using gene silencing technology from the Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO as one of the ways to help create the world’s first blue rose. To develop the rose with blue pigment scientists first had to turn off the gene that produces red pigment in roses. This dihydroflavonol reductase (DFR) gene is prominent in roses, hence the many varieties of red and pink flowers. DFR is also particularly poor at producing blue pigment.
To turn off the red pigment-making process, the CSIRO was called upon to implement its gene silencing technology. CSIRO first developed gene silencing, or hairpin RNAi, in 1997. It was a significant breakthrough that allowed them to turn down or switch off completely the activity of genes. According to CSIRO, gene silencing uses a natural mechanism that degrades RNA – the courier that delivers the gene’s instructions to make proteins, like the enzyme DFR. Florigene and Suntory inserted the delphinidin gene from pansies into the rose which effectively stopped the rose from creating red pigment. Once the rose's original DFR was "turned off", scientists say the door was opened to create blue roses. All they needed to do was find a flower that was very good at producing blue pigment. The chose the iris and replaced the rose’s DFR gene with that.
The result is a "blue" rose – not exactly sky-blue, more like a violet or mauve color. But significantly, it is the first rose produced by blue pigment, not from a red pigment heritage.
Scientists expect even bluer flowers should be achievable if rose petals can be made less acidic, as acidity inhibits blue pigment. Now that this genetically-modified blue rose has been submitted to and approved by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, it is available commercially. Sale of the roses will be constricted at first to Greater Tokyo (Tokyo Metropolitan, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba Prefectures), Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area (Osaka, Hyogo, and Kyoto Prefectures) and Aichi Prefecture.