Garden boon or Frankenflower?

Modifying the genes of plants might offer greater durability

In the Garden

May 30, 2004|By William Weir | William Weir,The Hartford Courant

The potted rhododendron Mark Brand picks up in his University of Connecticut laboratory pretty much looks like a regular plant. But in its genes are proteins that came from frogs -- and it may well represent the future of gardening. It's one of several rhododendrons that Brand has genetically treated by splicing the protein into the plant's cells. He hopes that the protein, discovered a few years ago by a pharmaceutical company, will make the plant more resistant to disease.

Brand specializes in ornamental horticulture, a field that seems a perfect match for genetic engineering. He's one of several scientists working toward a more durable garden. Brand would one day like to develop a deer-resistant plant. Others are playing with flowers' colors and fragrances.

The possibilities seem endless. A Danish company announced this year that it has developed flowers that detect land mines. The petals change color when the plant's roots meet with chemicals evaporating from land mines.

And with the help of the jellyfish's fluorescent protein, researchers at the University of Florida are developing flowers that would glow at the first signs of disease or drought. They hope to send them to Mars for research. Other scientists have looked at the potential of fluorescence to create novelty flowers.

For the amateur horticulturist, the possibility of Frankenstein gardens raises some issues. The appeal of a rodent- and disease-free garden is obvious, but might something be lost? After all, trading techniques for outwitting deer (coyote urine, leaving a radio on in the garden, etc.) have become a part of New England lore. And aren't all the challenges that go into growing a healthy garden part of the appeal?

Perhaps these are the fanciful notions of a non-gardener.

"Challenge?" says a perplexed Fran Jennings. "Follow me," she says as she leads the way to the back yard of her Madison, Conn., home. She waves a trowel at a clump of gnarled azaleas. "See that? Deer did that."

So, no, she can do without the challenge of foiling deer and the fun of tossing animal urine on her yard. If science has an answer, she's all ears. And if science can keep disease out of her garden, she's up for that too.

For Mel Smith, taking care of his yard in Old Saybrook, Conn., is a chore, and almost anything that would make it easier is welcome. But he draws a line.

"I suppose it's OK, as long as it doesn't create a monster that devours the gardener," he said. "I think there's a reason why frogs and plants don't propagate. That is pretty strange. Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should."

Public perception could be a stumbling block in making genetically modified gardening commercially viable, some researchers say.

"I think it reaches a point where it's hard to get your head around it," says Charles Mazza, a horticulturist at Cornell University. "And if you don't understand something, you may not want to deal with it at all."

Despite all the mad-scientist imagery that comes with talk about genetic engineering, Mazza says the technology fits well with the spirit of gardening. Horticulture has always been about moving forward into the unknown and finding something new.

"It's a process of seeing what works -- it's always a challenge," he says.

Much of it depends on how the science is presented to the public, says Michael Lawton, a plant biologist at Rutgers University.

"If you give them a specific benefit, then they're open to it," he says. "If you ask them, 'Would you be in favor of a genetically modified lawn that you didn't have to mow?' -- they're more favorable to it."

But considering how little is known, Brand says, a certain wariness is warranted. It's hard to tell how a transgenic rhododendron would interact with its environment.

"I think there are real issues," Brand says. "Some people overreact, but there are real concerns about genes getting into the environment. There's not enough information out there right now."

Either way, it'll be a while before the average gardener has to wrestle with such issues. If Brand were to commercialize his rhododendrons, he would need to get them through the federal regulatory process first. And he figures it would be about 10 years before they got a review from the Department of Agriculture.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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