Editor’s note: This is the third story in a four-part series that examines the controversial topic of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The series began Sunday and concludes Wednesday.
By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
For Hawaii’s floral industry, genetic engineering may be an idea whose time is near.
Fifteen years after the transgenic Rainbow papaya was commercialized, scientists say the state’s valuable flower crops could be the next to benefit from the controversial technology.
Much of the research, which is still largely in its early stages, focuses on anthurium.
Scientists say genetic engineering could be used to both develop strains resistant to a bacterial blight that devastated Big Island growers in the 1980s and introduce new colors to the plant’s palette, such as blue and purple.
Field trials for the projects are at least a few years away, they say, but the research is giving growers enough to get excited about.
“The scientific data coming about is very hopeful,” said Michael Inouye, president of the Hawaiian Anthurium Industry Association.
“You got to have something to look forward to, and this gives us something to get a grasp on,” he added.
The disease caused by the bacteria remains a concern for nursery owners.
About 200 small-scale growers were put out of business when the industry was hit nearly three decades ago.
The anthurium industry has stabilized, with the surviving large-scale growers adopting various methods for keeping the disease at bay.
Still, the threat of another outbreak remains, growers say, and they are hopeful science can make the bacterial threat history.
“It’s always there” in low levels, said Eric Tanouye, owner of Green Point Nurseries.
“But when you have anthuriums at 30,000 plants per acre at high density, it accentuates the possibility of outbreaks.”
Jon Suzuki, a molecular biologist with the Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center, said the research is similar to what was done with papaya in the 1990s.
Essentially, a gene from the bacteria would be introduced into the plant’s DNA, allowing it to become resistant.
That approach is credited with saving the papaya industry, which was devastated by the ringspot virus.
Two decades ago, a gene from the virus was successfully added to Sunset papaya, which was then crossed the Kapoho Solo variety to create the now widely used Rainbow papaya. It was commercialized in 1998, allowing the industry to rebound.
PBARC in Hilo is conducting the anthurium research, along with University of Hawaii at Manoa and Hawaii Agriculture Research Center.
Suzuki said there are no anthurium varieties resistant to the bacteria, making traditional hybridization challenging, if not impossible. That approach would also take a lot longer due to the plant’s slow growth cycle.
“We have so many tools in our tool box,” he said.
“We sort of use it whenever it is necessary,” Suzuki added.
To some, using genetic engineering to create a new plant color may not be seen as a necessity.
But Suzuki said he does see value in helping local growers remain competitive globally, even if that goes beyond fighting plant diseases.
“We realize that Hawaii might have been the birthplace of some of these flower industries,” he said. “But they do have high competition from the East, the Netherlands.”
Stephanie Whalen, HARC executive director, agreed.
“They need new products,” she said, and the research helps keep “our guys in the hunt.”
The color is added by removing or activating certain genes within the plant.
Whalen said that has been done successfully with roses, noting that the research is being done elsewhere.
“Someone else found the gene,” she said. “We’re just using them.”
Suzuki said there would be a low risk of cross-pollination between transgenic anthurium and a non-transgenic variety a resident may grow since nurseries and home gardens are typically not located too close together.
In regards to cross-pollination of anthurium growing in the wild, he said he wouldn’t expect any environmental impacts, noting that the research being done wouldn’t give it any weed-like characteristics.
Tanouye said that research will help growers on the island.
“I’m very, very excited,” he said. “The flower and plant industry is very fashion-oriented.”
Scientists say they can’t give a timeline for when such products may be ready.
“We’re still trying to trigger something to happen in the laboratory,” Whalen said.
But it may be worth the wait for growers.
“That’s a little bit down the road for us in the future,” Tanouye said. “For us, it’s the future.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Record sales in dozens: 2.5 million, 1980
Sales in dozens 2010: 441,000
Value in 2010: $3.4 million (17th largest commodity)