Borrowed genes give mums the blues

‘Holy Grail’ of flower color achieved in chrysanthemums for the first time

blue chrysanthemum

WHO’S GOT THE BLUES? Researchers in Japan have genetically engineered the first blue chrysanthemum. 

N. Noda/NARO

Mums are now a flower of a different color. Japanese researchers have added a hint of clear sky to the humble plant’s palette, genetically engineering the first-ever “true blue” chrysanthemum.

“Obtaining blue-colored flowers is the Holy Grail for plant breeders,” says Mark Bridgen, a plant breeder at Cornell University. The results are “very exciting.”

Compounds called delphinidin-based anthocyanin pigments are responsible for the natural blues in such flowers as pansies and larkspur. Mums lack those compounds. Instead, the flowers come in a variety of other colors, evoking fiery sunsets, new-fallen snow and all things chartreuse.

In previous attempts to engineer a blue hue in chrysanthemums — and roses and carnations — researchers inserted the gene for a key enzyme that controls production of these compounds, causing them to accumulate. But the resulting blooms skewed more violet-purple than blue.  

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pink and magenta chrysanthemums, and blue and purple crhysanthemums
SACRÉ BLEU Researchers transformed pink and magenta chrysanthemums into various shades of blue and purple by adding two genes, linked to blue coloration in other flowers. Satoshi Yoshioka/NARO

True blue pigment remained elusive, scientists thought, because its origin was complex; multiple genes have been shown to be involved in its generation. But Naonobu Noda, of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan, and colleagues were surprised to find that inserting only two borrowed genes into chrysanthemums created blue flowers. One gene, from Canterbury bells, got the enzyme process started; the other, from butterfly peas, further tweaked the pigment molecules.

Together, the gene double-team transformed 19 of 32 mums, or 59 percent, of the Taihei variety from having pink or magenta blooms into blue beauties. Additional analyses revealed that the blue color arose because of molecular interactions between the tweaked pigment and certain colorless compounds naturally found in many plants, including chrysanthemums. The two-part method could possibly be used in the production of other blue flowers, the researchers report July 26 in Science Advances

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