Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name...Maybe Not

Once again scientists have dabbled where wise men should fear to tread. Genetic manipulation is not for the faint-hearted no matter who’s (or what’s) genes are being manipulated.

Not content with adding a gene there, splicing a gene there in the animal kingdom; a team of scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found a new genetic victim. They have developed a way to genetically enhance the scent of flowers and implant a scent in those that don’t have one.

Prof. Alexander Vainstein explains how smell plays an important role in our lives. “It influences the way in which we choose fruit and vegetables, perfume, and even a partner. And yet, smell is not just what we smell with our noses, it’s also what we taste. Aroma is of major importance for defining the taste of food.” Prof. Vainstein is heading the team of scientists at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Prof. Vainstein and his research assistant, Michal Moyal Ben-Tzvi, together with other researchers have managed to find a way to enhance the scent of a flower by ten-fold and cause it to emit a scent night and day – regardless of the plant’s own natural rhythm of scent production. This development has been patented by the Hebrew University’s technology transfer company, Yissum, and is intended to be applied to other agricultural produce.

Utilizing natural components will increase and change not only smell of fruits and vegetables; but, will also influence the commercial appeal of a wide variety of produce. This could change the taste and appearance of fruits and vegetables as we know them now.

Another industry that Prof. Vainstein sees as being interested in this development is the flower industry. "Many flowers lost their scent over many years of breeding. Recent developments will help to create flowers with increased scent as well as producing new scent components in the flowers."

Scent is a big industry today with billions of dollars being spent to lead the consumer around by the nose. Over a third of those surveyed by the Flowers and Plants Association stated that scent influenced their choice of flower purchase as much or more than any other feature such as color, shape, petal shape, etc. The perfume industry spends a great deal of time and money every year trying to replicate the scent of that perfect bouquet. Floral scents are one of the most popular no matter where they are used.

As Prof. Vainstein points out smell is a very complicated sense. No one really understands how it works in humans let alone bees. Scent in flowers and plants is used to attract pollinating insects like bees, beetles, wasps and ladybugs that pass on pollen and aid in the reproduction and creation of fruit. Many things control the scent emitted by the plant like time of day, weather, age of the flower, species and many other factors not known to us yet.

Many of these signals emitted by the plant (scent intensity, no scent, day scent, night scent) are used to encourage the correct pollinators in and keep the incorrect pollinators out. Nature has evolved a marvelously effective pollination cycle. An example of this: Some flowers need a rounded fuzzy body like a bee to enter so all the pollen is taken from this flower and given the next. If the scent of the flower is altered so a walking stick now finds it attractive – the nectar will be gone and the pollen will remain because a walking stick is not round enough or fuzzy enough to remove it. Then what?

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