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Two years ago, plant biologist Teemu Teeri was walking by a train station in Helsinki when he noticed some vivid orange petunias in a planter. The flowers reminded Teeri, who has studied plant pigments at the University of Helsinki, of blooms created in a landmark gene-engineering experiment some 30 years earlier. As far as he knew, those flowers never made it to market. But he was curious, and he stuck a stem in his backpack.
Now, that chance encounter has ended up forcing flower sellers on two continents to destroy vast numbers of petunias. Teeri ultimately confirmed that the plants contained foreign DNA, and he tipped off regulators in Europe and the United States, who have identified other commercial strains that are genetically engineered (GE). Although officials say the GE petunias pose no threat to human health or the environment—and likely were unknowingly sold for years—they’ve asked sellers to destroy the flowers, because it’s illegal to sell them in the United States and Europe without a permit.
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. On 27 April, Evira, Finland’s food safety body, called for eight petunia varieties to be removed from the market. Other European nations also began investigations.
By 2 May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) was on alert. It worked with breeders to perform a standard GE screen, searching suspect petunias’ DNA for the cauliflower mosaic virus sometimes used to control the expression of an inserted gene. Like several early workhorses of genetic engineering, the virus is officially considered a “plant pest,” and plants containing its DNA are subject to APHIS regulation. The testing has so far revealed 10 varieties of GE petunia, and 21 others have been “implicated as potentially GE.” In a guidance to the industry, it gave growers and sellers several options: Incinerate, autoclave, bury, compost, or dispose of the plants in a landfill.
The doomed petunias may number in the thousands, though industry groups couldn’t provide precise estimates. Some companies appear to have unwittingly purveyed the plants for nearly a decade, says Michael Firko, deputy administrator of APHIS’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services division in Riverdale, Maryland. A member of his team even discovered the orange flowers in a centerpiece at a graduation party earlier this month. “She was tempted to take a sample, but she didn’t want to destroy the nice floral display,” Firko says.
Testing continues, but USDA says it has already confirmed nine unwelcome varieties. They are:
African Sunset (the petunia initially identified as GE)
Trilogy Deep Purple
Trilogy ’76 Mix-Liberty Mix
Fortunia Early Orange
Hells Bells Improved
Petunia Salmon Ray
Sweetunia Orange Flash
The U.S. discovery follows similar discoveries of genetically modified petunias in Finland and the European Union, which also bar the growing and sale of GE plants without special permits. Finnish regulators banned the sale of GE orange petunias on 27 April, and the European Union has begun an investigation. Many European breeders and distributors are now tracing the GE plants so they can be withdrawn from the market and destroyed.
News of the U.S. investigation was first broken on 14 May by Greenhouse Management News. “[T]he implicated plants were not properly registered with the USDA as GE plants because no one seemed to know that they contained or were bred with GE plant material,” Michelle Simakis and Karen E. Varga reported. Breeders believe the GE material entered the petunia breeding chain some time ago, they report, and then went unnoticed by breeders who use conventional methods to produce plants.
"It’s one of those things where I think [the GE plant] sprang up during an age of innocence and perpetuated itself because no one even knew to look for it or fathomed that it was in the germplasm chain," Steve Wiley, general manager of American Takii, a horticultural firm based Salinas, California, told the publication.
GG: How is AmericanHort working with breeders and growers to find a solution to this issue and make sure that no more GE petunias unintentionally creep into the germplasm supply going forward? Will more testing be involved?
Regelbrugge: The approach is both short term and long term. Short term, it has been about managing the regulatory response and the effect it has on the industry. The early work has been to understand where the USDA has flexibility and where it does not. Our goal is to minimize the impact on the industry.
Currently, the industry is trying to get our arms around the complete picture. USDA is doing its own lab testing to confirm whether the implicated varieties were genetically engineered using methodologies that fall within the scope of its regulations, and the affected companies are testing implicated varieties, as well as analyzing other petunia varieties not on the list that may have been crossbred with them.
One component of response has been to come to an agreement with the USDA on what is expected. The USDA has released two guidance documents so far. The first is a general version that talks about what to do with implicated plants. The USDA updates this guidance based on laboratory confirmations of affected or suspected varieties. The second guidance document, released on May 18, covers more specific testing guidelines for the affected companies. It is important that everyone see eye-to-eye on the protocols and resources for testing to avoid money and time wasted on unnecessary lab work.
originally posted by: butcherguy
I do not like the smell of petunias.
Does anyone else dislike theirr odor?
originally posted by: Caver78
a reply to: Deaf Alien
Well if we can "spin" this to the Russians are responsible?
originally posted by: Caver78
a reply to: angeldoll
Maybe it's the variety of purple you have that's different than the mass produced plants available usually?
I'd be interested to know.
originally posted by: butcherguy
a reply to: angeldoll
After the blooms wilt and I pull the wilted ones out, that smell sticks to my fingers and I have to go wash them right away, even if I have more work to do outside.
The only other flower that I dislike the odor of are marigolds.
There is a theory about how this all began, and how the genetically engineered germplasm or organism was incorporated into so many breeding programs, but the USDA has not confirmed any details yet. Many say the source was from experiments breeding petunias with corn back in the late 1980s.
“We’re aware of a gene engineered into petunia from corn in the 1980s. We don’t know if this is the genetic material in these particular GE petunias. Genetic testing is underway,” the USDA spokesperson said.
Breeders are also conducting their own tests, including Westhoff. Berg says they are not limiting their tests to petunias.
“We have to first start by testing everything. All plants in our current assortment as well as all the plants in our breeding house. The Finnish test was looking specifically at orange lines of petunias, but we can’t say for absolute certainty that this gene hasn’t been incorporated into our other varieties,” Berg says. “And since we have no idea when and how it entered our gene pool, we need to screen all of our plants we’re breeding with.”
Westhoff is concerned about how this will impact plant supplies next year.
“We are working as quickly and as efficiently as possible with the entire breeding community to find a solution for this,” Berg says. “Because GE plants are regulated by the USDA, we expect there will be several varieties from many breeders that won’t be available on the market next year. But the USDA has been very cooperative so far, and I feel they’ll help our industry get these plants back in the hands of consumers in the long term.
“This is an extremely unfortunate event that is going to disrupt a lot of growers and retailers in the next year.”