Science - January 15, 2004

Genetically modified lily makes less mess

Lilies are beautiful flowers, but not always welcome in the home. The pollen that falls off the stamens stains clothes and tablecloths. PhD graduate Vagner Augusto Benedito believes it possible to do something about this.

The Brazilian molecular biologist studied the genes responsible for the formation and shape of the flowers. “We already know how these genes work in Arabidopsis thaliana, but not in the lily,” says Benedito. The lily genome is seven hundred times as big as that of Arabidopsis, and experiments with the lily take longer as it only flowers after two years. Arabidopsis, in contrast, flowers after a few months.

“To speed our research up we took lily genes and inserted them in the Arabidopsis DNA,” explains Benedito. “This taught us that the genes involved in flower formation work in almost the same way in both plants.” But there are a few subtle differences, says Benedito’s supervisor Dr Frans Krens of Plant Research International: “We know that Arabidopsis genes work according to the ABCDE model. First gene A starts to work, then B together with A, then C together with B and so on, in sequence. In lilies we noticed that these genes are sometimes active at slightly different moments. As a result the lily flowers are formed differently than the Arabidopsis flowers. In lilies it is therefore impossible to tell the difference between the sepals and the petals.” Benedito discovered that the moment at which the flower genes are active determines whether an organ becomes a sepal, a petal or a stamen. This information makes it theoretically possible to create a lily without stamens, but with extra petals. Whether this will become reality Krens does not know. “That will be up to the consumer,” he comments.

Vagner Augusto Benedito received his PhD on 14 January. His promotor is Professor of Biochemistry, Sacco de Vries.

Willem Koert