National Chung Hsing University (NCHU) researchers have discovered certain genes in orchids that can be used to manipulate flower hue, prolong the flowering period and prevent wilting, which could reduce the time needed to produce new orchid varieties from seven years to two months.
There are more than 28,000 varieties of orchids, making them one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants, NCHU vice president and Graduate Institute of Biotechnology professor Yang Chang-hsien (楊長賢) said on Wednesday.
The popularity of orchids lies in their flowers, which are defined by a symmetrical perianth — the non-reproductive elements of the flower — separated by a distinct petal called the lip or labellum that attracts insects, he said.
Photo: Su Meng-chuan, Taipei Times
Five years ago, a research team led by Yang developed the “perianth password” theory, which discovered the L and SP complexes behind orchid petal formation.
The SP complex determines sepal and petal formation, while the L complex determines the identity of the lip.
In a paper published on Feb. 10 in Nature Communications, the team said that the SP complex not only moderates sepal and petal formation, but also pigmentation, deterioration, shedding and other life cycle processes.
Three of the genes involved in the creation of the SP complex can change the color of the flower, Yang said.
These proteins can be suppressed through gene silencing to reduce anthocyanin — or pigment — accumulation, in effect bleaching the flower, he said.
He provided two samples, one of a purple-red moth orchid that became significantly whiter after intervention, and the other of an orange moth orchid that became yellow.
Also using gene silencing, other proteins in the SP complex can be suppressed to make the flowers age or the stem harden prematurely, ensuring that the flowers do not fall off even when withered, Yang said.
It takes seven to eight years to cultivate new types of orchids through relatively unpredictable cross-breeding, but with this method, a new color could be produced in as little as two months, he said.
The flowering period could also be stretched longer than the standard 80 to 100 days, he added.
Yang said the discovery refutes the assumption that the genes governing flower formation retreat after the floral organs are formed, showing that these mechanisms remain important in other stages of flower development.
The finding is a breakthrough in the field of international flower research, he said.
It also has practical implications, as the technique can increase the output diversity and value of the domestic orchid market, he added.
Other article authors include NCHU postdoctoral researchers Hsu Hsing-fun, Chen Wei-han, Hsu Wei-han and Mao Wan-ting, as well as master’s degree student Shen Yi-hsuan.
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