genetically modified roses
David Clark at UF Gainesville has found the genes that give flowers their smell.

Ever wanted a rose that smelled like bananas? Maybe a petunia that reeked of root beer? Researchers at the University of Florida Gainesville have isolated 13 genes in flowers that key for the blossom's fragrance. These same genes hold the secrets to improving the tastes of some fruits. According to a news release from UF and an interview in Discovery News, these scientists have already started work on tastier tomatoes, and their first crop of petunias that smell like roses are scheduled to blossom this summer. The genetic modification of flowers for scent was detailed in Plant Journal as well as Phytochemistry, and could herald a new era of designer blossoms. Imagine going to a florist and asking for roses that smelled like bacon. By discovering the genes that code for scent, these scientists have opened the door to genetically modified plants that smell and taste better than ever before.

When you select for one trait, you tend to sacrifice others. The race to breed better blossoms over the past fifty years has improved size and beauty at the cost of scent. The same holds true for food crops - fruit and veggies are getting bigger, but they aren't getting tastier. Even projects that take advantage of genetic modification typically only focus on resistance to parasites and improved yield. The University of Florida work, headed by David Clark, was itself focused on improving pollination by increasing the lifespan of petunia petals. Discovering the dozen or so fragrance genes was an accidental find - they've examined more than 8000 such genes over the past decade.

According to the UF news release, Clark and his colleagues are first looking to restore the "lost" fragrances of many flowers that have been breed for other characteristics in the last century. Eventually, however, the same genes that could return a flower to its ancestral scent could also be used to create entirely artificial smells. Flowers can be made to smell like other species, other foods, maybe even inorganic compounds. The implications extend outside of the florist shop. Perhaps flowers that smelled strongest whenever there were too many heavy metals in the water supply? As genetic modification finds its way into blossoms, these plants could move from ornamentation to practical applications. GM has its down side, but you can bet that discoveries like this one are leading to a better (smelling) future.

[image credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida]