A Japanese university’s announcement that they have successfully produced a genetically modified blue Phalaenopsis orchid has been met with excitement from the orchid community
Flower colour is a particularly visible sign of the diversity of orchids. Amongst the pinks, yellows, reds, whites and greens, two colours are notable by their absence: blue and black. Orchids do not naturally produce black pigments but intensive breeding has produced hybrids such as Fredclarkeara After Dark ’Feuerbach’, widely regarded as a truly black flower. The elusive nature of the black orchid is reflected in the term’s popular uses: a DC comics superheroine, a Doctor Who episode, and an exclusive perfume by Tom Ford. Similarly, blue pigments are rare in the orchid family; the well known blue orchid Vanda coerulea actually has purple-blue flowers and the only wild orchids with true blue flowers are some Thelymitra species from Western Australia. Blue orchid is also the name of a single by The White Stripes (the lyrics of which provided the title of this post).
Of particular interest for commercial orchid growers is creating a blue orchid for the mass market as the colour is completely absent from the Phalaenopsis, the most popular orchids in international trade. Some nurseries have resorted to injecting dye into the flower spikes of white plants, although they produce white flowers the next time they bloom.
For these reasons, Chiba University’s breakthrough in creating a blue-flowered plant was of great interest to commercial orchid growers and there were long queues to see the official unveiling of the plants at their world debut in Okinawa in February 2013. The plant in question was produced by inserting a gene from the bright blue Asiatic dayflower Commelina communis in to a white Phalaenopsis hybrid. After several years of research the resulting plants produced deep blue flowers and will, in theory, pass this colour on to their offspring. While many are excited, some growers are concerned that ‘designer’ orchids could remove the fun of creating new hybrids.
The conservation implications of the blue orchid are interesting to consider. Due to the ex situ nature of orchid propagation and their requirements for specific pollinators, there is little chance of GM orchids interbreeding with wild plants, a threat that is of concern for other GM crops. The conservation impact may actually be positive; being able to create orchids with highly sought after qualities in the lab may help to protect orchids in the wild by preventing the collection of novel species. For example, a newly discovered species with an unusual colouration may not be the target of collectors if orchids of any colour can be created to order in a laboratory.