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July 23, 2017 1:54 PM   Subscribe

In 2015, a plant biologist noticed some bright orange petunias near a train station in Helsinki which in May 2017 caused the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS] to confirm that numerous varieties of petunias were not properly registered as being genetically engineered (GE).

Starting with the orange petunia, the USDA investigated different varieties available in the US and the list of GE petunias keeps increasing. In the US (pdf), UK, and EU, plant breeders, growers, and retailers of the various petunia varieties are being told to remove the plants from distribution and to destroy them. Although petunias are a perennial plant in warmer climates (hardiness zones 10 and 11), in most of Europe and the US they are treated as an annual.

Proposed reforms to U.S. biotechnology rules might have exempted these petunias from regulation and mass destruction.
posted by bCat (25 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Teeri's sister, Tuula, has just finished a 7 year stint as President of Aalto University. They're definitely an accomplished family. I liked this bit in the first link:

Teeri then made a decision he now regrets: spilling the beans to a former Ph.D. student who had taken a job as a regulator at the Finnish Board for Gene Technology. “I told too much,” he says. “I should have asked a hypothetical question,” about what would happen if regulators discovered GE petunias that had not gone through the proper regulatory channels
posted by infini at 2:18 PM on July 23, 2017

What a crazy story. I wonder if maybe the orange petunias were released as a sort of Trojan horse, to get people to complain about the stupidity of current laws when they were discovered?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:01 PM on July 23, 2017

The avalanche has started, it is too late for the USDA to vote.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:03 PM on July 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

What a crazy story. I wonder if maybe the orange petunias were released as a sort of Trojan horse, to get people to complain about the stupidity of current laws when they were discovered?

Plant collectors complain about any and all laws, stupid or not, and have forever. It's almost as tedious as discussions about potting mix and far less useful!
posted by srboisvert at 3:05 PM on July 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Are there photographs of these? I have some wild colored petunias that have bloomed like crazy all summer, in colors I never saw before.
posted by yarly at 3:20 PM on July 23, 2017

I wonder how close they are to modifying the hair pigment genes of animals. All I've seen was the artist Eduardo Kac's glow-in-the-dark albino rabbit, with a Green Fluorescent Protein gene from a jellyfish, IIRC. Sooner or later, someone has to try splicing genes from, say, parrots into mammals and end up with rainbow tortoiseshell cats or seapunk-green terriers or something.
posted by acb at 4:13 PM on July 23, 2017

Are there photographs of these? I have some wild colored petunias that have bloomed like crazy all summer, in colors I never saw before.

I started to compile a listing of the varieties when creating the post, but decided not to include them. Here goes:

African Sunset
Amore Mio
BigDeal Freaky Fuchsia
BigDeal Salmon Shimmer
Cascadia Red Lips
Crazytunia Cherry Cheesecake
Crazytunia Citrus Twist
Crazytunia Fire Cracker
Crazytunia Maniac Pink
Crazytunia Sparky Imp.
Crazytunia Star Jubilee
Crazytunia Swiss Dancer
Electric Orange
Hells Fruit Punch
Hells Glow
Littletunia Red Fire
Perfectunia Cherry Pop
Perfectunia Coral Blast
Potunia Plus Papaya
Sweetunia Hot Rod Red
Sweetunia Orange Flash
posted by bCat at 5:15 PM on July 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

The people who name petunia varietals are actually worse than the people who name strains of cannabis.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:41 PM on July 23, 2017 [21 favorites]

And they appear to have a motorcycle gang's grasp of apostrophe usage.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:15 PM on July 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

What a crazy story. I wonder if maybe the orange petunias were released as a sort of Trojan horse, to get people to complain about the stupidity of current laws when they were discovered?--Joe in Australia

On the other hand, maybe it was on purpose in order to make a profit. The article uses words like 'unwittingly' and 'mistake', but I wonder.

It may not matter with petunias, and certainly there are some GMO crops that are helping feed starving countries, so what's the big deal? I think it is a mistake to say that you can't make a new version of a plant that ends up being harmful if you try hard enough, and profit motive (greed) combined with short term thinking could influence someone to do something that turns out to be really stupid and harmful, which is probably why they have the licensing requirement in the first place.

That's why this spooks me a bit.
posted by eye of newt at 9:19 PM on July 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who plants these uniformly bright, deep, orange miniature zinnias each year. They are so uniform. I bet they are a part of this. I had never seen them before in all my life before she started buying them a few years ago. "They" do what they want, until caught. Yeah.
posted by Oyéah at 9:48 PM on July 23, 2017

So, it turns out the big deal with GMO crops is the "mono" stuff: monoculture and monopoly. That's also the answer to the question of how these differ from plants that humans have enhanced over thousands of years of breeding (and there have been monoculture issues aplenty there).

If the company is essentially giving away the stuff, that might take care of the monopoly concern -- unless this is the gateway drug of petunias, and once everyone can't live without these varieties it intends to jack up the prices.

(As to the threat of a monoculture petunia and its global vulnerability to some kind of blight or climate change, I'd lay odds the ecological ramifications would extend somewhat beyond Porky Pig having to find a new love interest ... )
posted by oheso at 4:10 AM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've grown at least two of the listed cultivars.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:12 AM on July 24, 2017

Sooner or later, someone has to try splicing genes from, say, parrots into mammals and end up with rainbow tortoiseshell cats or seapunk-green terriers or something.

...who crave human flesh.
posted by zarq at 6:15 AM on July 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

So, it turns out the big deal with GMO crops is the "mono" stuff--oheso

Africanized 'killer' bees are the result of a well intentioned breeding of African and European honey bees. Cane toads were introduced into Australia in an attempt to control the cane beetle and the result has been a disaster for their environment.

There aren't any issues with GMO crops (other than the "mono" stuff). I'm just saying that modern techniques allow for much faster changes than have been possible in the past with hybridization, and so we have to be careful. There are GMO Luddites, and sometimes we get a reasonable knee jerk reaction against them. But then we start attacking the non-Luddites. It is foolish to stop being cautious and think 'nothing bad can ever happen'.
posted by eye of newt at 7:29 AM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

> The people who name petunia varietals are actually worse than the people who name strains of cannabis.

It should not surprise MeFites to learn that cultivar naming rules are really complicated, in ways which rule out a lot of straightforwardly descriptive names. And that's before you get into the problem that most of the names you might approve of were already used fifty years ago and are therefore not available for new cultivars. Trademarks (names like "Crazytunia" are probably trademarks, meant to group a line of plants from the same hybridizer with similar origin or properties) add a layer of complexity on top of that.

Orchid names are increasingly just [random word] + [random word] + [random word], with the words in question not even necessarily from the same language, e.g. Paphiopedilum (Mod Maude x Shin-Yi Pie) x Hsinying Rubyweb, or Rhyncattleanthe Hsinying Catherine 'Dogashima.'

Though at least the orchids are still using words; in some cases we've already moved on to stuff like Calibrachoa 'KLEC02073,' or the plum variety 'Suplumthirtytwo' as the official name, with a separate, unofficial name under which the plant is actually sold.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:43 AM on July 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sooner or later, someone has to try splicing genes from, say, parrots into mammals and end up with rainbow tortoiseshell cats or seapunk-green terriers or something.

So this is a lot harder than it sounds. GFP (and related fluorescent proteins like RFP) are actually pretty unusual among pigmentation proteins inasmuch as they're a single, small, one-and-done kind of protein--but they only show up under UV light, which given that UV light is a mutagen means that you can either doom Green Fluorescent Fluffy to a pointlessly short, skin-cancer ridden life or Green Fluorescent Fluffy can live out their lives looking 90% of the time like a normal, non-interestingly-modified pet. Not.... particularly something I'd be willing to pay extra for. In fact, this was for quite some time a massive ethics problem with the GFP, OFP, and RFP expressing fish that have been commonly marketed in big box chain pet shops like Petco with the advice to display the fish under UV light to see the cool colors. This is.... the same UV light that causes DNA damage and mutations in the fish. I believe the instructions have now shifted to displaying the fish under light in less damaging spectra and modified them to express the pigment more densely, at least.

(It should be noted that there is honestly no real plausible concern that any of the modified GloFish species, all extremely common aquarium species, could escape into the wild and outcompete natural fish or cause any human disease. If anything, they are almost certainly more likely to be targets for predators than a normal zebrafish might be.)

Now here's the bit that's harder. The beautiful, vibrant colors that you can see on birds and some fish aren't always things that translate well to mammals. Bird colors can be grouped roughly into pigments from melanins, carotenoids, and porphyins, with the addition of structural colors that are created by subtle changes in the shape of the feather itself. Pigmented colors might be candidates for transferring to a mammal, but structural colors can't be--after all, we can't modify the structure of a cat's feathers! Iridescent colors and blue in birds is almost always a structural color, not a pigmented color, so it's straight up not an issue we can even tackle in mammalian pets.

By contrast, mammalian color is all 100% created by changes in deposition or identity of melanin pigment, which creates blacks, reds, tans, etc. (There are two kinds: one for black and one for reds.) Fucking with the shape or color of a melanin can give us something like a chocolate lab, which has had its black-melanin mutated such that the color produced is now dark brown instead and which would otherwise be a black dog; fucking with the patterns of deposition can give us something like a yellow lab, which has been mutated such that it produces no black-melanin in its hair cells at all, only red-melanin.

Of the other bird pigments, carotenoids present another problem: they can't be synthesized by almost any animals at all, and so the bright yellows and reds created by carotenoids in birds must be eaten by the birds (and other animals that use carotenoid pigments, which are very common in non-mammalian species) in order to display the color. You would have to be able to figure out exactly which genes cause the animals to collect the carotenoid pigments and deposit them in the hair follicles to get interesting colors, and you'd have to feed those animals carotenoid supplemented diets. You'd have to make sure that you didn't fuck with their immune systems too--carotenoids are important to immune system function--and you'd basically end up with a bright reddish to yellow animal, which is, honestly, pretty goddamn boring in a dog. (In a cat, maybe a solid yellow cat with no tabby markings might be marketable, I guess, but it'd probably be easier to start from existing cat breeds based off natural mutations and breed for your color.) You might be able to make kind of an ugly mutant green from mixing carotenoids with melanins, but it'd be very tricky to get the expression patterns right in the developing hair tissues.

You could assume that you're trying to synthesize carotenoids in your putative cats rather than getting the protein into hair follicles and feeding it to them, of course, but that takes a series of many genes that all interact to synthesize the compound. In fact, only two insect species are known to be able to do it in animals--everyone else gets carotenoids for pigment from consuming either plants or other animals.

That leaves me with porphyrins, which are more promising since they can give you bright greens and a few other things.... but which you'd need to be very careful about when figuring out how to get into the hair follicles to express the color, because mammals actually do produce porphyrins. We just don't use them for coloration. We use them pretty well exclusively for metabolism; they include proteins like hemoglobin. You'd need to make sure that whatever biochemical pathway of enzymes to produce the pigments doesn't interfere with the natural porphyrin synthesis pathways for proteins to be used elsewhere in the animal, and you would have to be inserting quite a few genes and probably synthesizing a pigment carrying protein from bits of other genes de novo to get the interesting porphyrin deposited in the hairs in the first place.

That's the thing: these proteins that different species use for pigments aren't just one-gene wonders, they're synthesized from a number of different precursors and substrates using a series of specific enzymes, each of which might or might not interact with different tissue-specific proteins in an animal's system. And then god forbid if you want patterns of color, you have to work out how to manipulate where each pigment will be deposited in the hairs and which hairs to put them in.

Even if you want, like, a tortoiseshell dog or a brindle cat, things get tricky. Tortoiseshell in cats only works because the specific gene that encodes the proteins to carry black-melanin to the cat's hairs happens to be on the X chromosome, and any XX mammal is a mosaic of places where one X or the other X happens to be active. For a dog, you'd have to effectively translocate the locus that definitely causes that to the X chromosome and remove the locus entirely in order to get a similar effect. As for brindle, which appears to be a modifier that takes all tan areas on a dog and runs black striping over the hairs.... well, dogs and cats have totally different agouti series patterning, and it's not clear how cat "base" agouti patterns (basically all the kinds of tabby) might pair with a modifier of dog "base" agouti patterns (basically, the range of dogs that goes from black with tan pips to black and tan like a German Shepherd all the way up to almost entirely tan with a few black hairs over the hips).

For god's sake, we barely understand the genetics of the colors we have already. It's much more difficult to change them in a mammal than it looks.

An actual possibility might be manipulating the structure of the hairs themselves in a similar way to the hollow hairs that make Akhal-Teke horses unusually shiny, but it would be tricky to do that and there's more risk something might go wrong in a way that was unethical for the new breed of pet than with a pigmentation change. (Effectively, adding new pigments typically don't change much, but changing the structure of the follicles might do something like removing them altogether or make animals susceptible to skin conditions, something like that. That's all handwaving.)
posted by sciatrix at 11:20 AM on July 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

Fun fact: Those beautiful carnations at Whole Foods (and other grocery stores) in shades of purple? Also GMO! (Don't worry, it's all above board. They're grown in South America and imported as cut flowers to Europe and the US) They're probably not the only GMO product in the store, but it delights me every time I see them next to the ridiculous organic cosmetics section.

I'm sorry to hear about these petunias and will definitely buy up any I see immediately to further my growing criminal empire.
posted by maryr at 12:50 PM on July 24, 2017

On a related note, I'm growing these in the backyard right now and they look amazing so far. Deep, dark eggplant purple. It's like scifi tomatoes. It's so cool. They aren't GMO though, unfortunately.
posted by maryr at 12:52 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Demand to see scifi tomatoes.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:13 PM on July 24, 2017

Working late tonight (plus it's icky rainy), will work on acquiring photo tomorrow.
posted by maryr at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2017

(there might be a crazytunia in a hanging basket at my mother-in-law's house).
posted by sciencegeek at 5:51 PM on July 24, 2017

Ask her to let it go to seed!
posted by maryr at 8:51 AM on July 25, 2017

Not cuttings?
posted by sciencegeek at 5:31 PM on July 27, 2017

I don't think petunias propagate by cuttings, but you'd have to ask Dr. Google that one.
posted by maryr at 11:29 AM on July 28, 2017

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