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Published: Monday, 12/13/2004

Puny petunia? Not this winter wonder

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER
University of Toledo researchers, from left, R.V. Sairam, Stephen Goldman, and Parani Madas-amy look at a control plant that has died and a cold-resistant petunia plant that has thrived. University of Toledo researchers, from left, R.V. Sairam, Stephen Goldman, and Parani Madas-amy look at a control plant that has died and a cold-resistant petunia plant that has thrived.
LONG / BLADE Enlarge

A team of researchers at the University of Toledo has created petunias that survive in temperatures so low that other flowers curl up and die in two hours.

The team of plant scientists, including Stephen Goldman, R.V. Sairam, and Parani Madasamy, say this is only the beginning of the freeze-tolerant flower species they can create. By inserting a gene from a weed that doesn't mind the cold, the plants thrive in temperatures as low as 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We can transform pretty much any crop using this gene," said Mr. Sairam, assistant director of UT's Plant Science Research Center.

The genetic alteration also confers drought and salinity tolerance, said Mr. Madasamy, who performed the hands-on work in the project. He is a research assistant professor in the Plant Science Research Center.

The group hopes the work will benefit northwest Ohio greenhouse growers.

"The second-largest cost in the greenhouse industry is utilities," said Mr. Goldman, director of the Plant Science Research Center. "When you're competing with people out of Florida and out of California, it's a big thing."

Freeze-tolerant plants might allow growers to reduce spring growing temperatures by 10 to 20 degrees.

"That sounds really interesting" said Gene Klotz, owner of Klotz Flower Farm on Napoleon Road in Bowling Green. "The cost of heating wasn't such a big factor a few years ago. Now the cost, I would say, is at least 35 percent, maybe even a little more. Where, before, we could

look at maybe 10 percent.

"What I don't now for sure is, how well will the plant grow at those temperatures?" Mr. Klotz said. If growth slows down in the cold, the benefit could diminish.

And at the moment, the researchers can't answer that question. The petunias will be tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funded the research, to see how low the plants can go, how well they grow, and how long they can survive at reduced temperatures.

Despite these open questions, the UT researchers already are talking to two California growers.

"They wanted this in poinsettias. They said this would be much bigger than a multi-million dollar" advance, if it worked, Mr. Sairam said.

While today's crop of freeze-baby petunias were made with a gene from a mustard-family weed called Aribidopsis, the researchers also have learned how to induce the petunia's own genes to prevent icy death.

By using a plant's own genes, Mr. Sairam says, the group hopes to overcome objections to genetic modification, which typically involves introducing genes from other species into a plant.

Finally, the plant could be altered so it wouldn't produce seed, allowing reproduction only through cuttings. That would eliminate transgenic pollen. Many worry that genetically altered pollen will allow uncontrolled genetic modification of related species in the environment.

But as promising as these developments sound, Tom Wardell, past president of the Toledo Area Flower and Vegetable Growers Association, and owner of Wardell's Farm Market in Waterville, said there's no guarantee they'll get to growers soon, if they get there at all.

"I don't know if the seed companies are even going to be interested in something like that," Mr. Wardell said. "You can do a lot of things in a laboratory situation, but there's still a lot of steps to be taken."

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.



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