According to the latest figures released by the Chamber of Commerce 50,000 visitors flock to the Naples area each spring to experience our annual Bucida Blaze Event. Camera-toting tourists are stunned watching thousands of Black Olive trees become huge red lollipops with color so bright that night becomes day.
These forty foot high tropical wonders leap into color as if on fire, all in perfect synchronicity.
Did you miss the event?
OK. Reality check: Black olive produces an abundance of flowers but they are light green and so nearly invisible. What if these flowers were red? A new genetic tool called ‘Crispr’ (‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’) that could make this possible is causing big waves in genetic research.
Back In The Day
When addressing audiences I describe the perfect shrub, one that grows to the desired size and then stops. It’s a useful way to get audiences thinking about the value of design and the cost of maintenance resulting from poor specification.
The popular arbicola, for instance, will not remain three feet tall. The popular Ginger Lily has fragrant leaves and flowers but at five feet is a tall dooryard plant. Ixora ‘Nora Grant’ is beloved by snowbirds for winter flowers but too tall for planting below front windows (and suffers from leaf discoloring fungus).
What if there’s a future with ‘customizable’ plants? Many of our horticultural plants are already customized.
Humans have been toying with plant and animal characteristics since the dawn of agriculture 11,000 years ago. Farmers notice that a few individuals stand out in a field containing thousands of identical plants. Seeds or cuttings from that special plant are set aside, planted the following year in the hopes that the peculiarity will be passed to future generations. Sometimes these plants ‘breed true’; more often they do not. Selective breeding, as it is called, is trial and error.
It is a huge generalization, of course, but that is how dogs became Chihuahuas and Great Danes. And those yellow Arbicola we see around are a result of some mutant plant noticed and then propagated.
Selective breeding is responsible for much more than new dog breeds. Before the invention of agriculture, humans were restricted to small hunter-gather groups. Lives were difficult, dangerous; starvation a constant companion. The human population could never grow beyond subsistence.
Agriculture allowed permanent settlements. Populations soared as food supplies became reliable. Some left farming for any number of specialities required of a thriving community.
And with permanent farms came slow but successful improvements in both crop yields and nutrition through selection. A farmer in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia or Indus Valley or many other early settlements wouldn’t recognize our modern wheat plant, even though it is the same species. Before the twentieth century, selection had already refined native wheat into a powerhouse.
Pandora Has Arrived
But selective breeding is limited because it depends on incremental changes over many seasons, and on the ability of the plant to produce the desired characteristic. Crispr allows rapid expression plus the ability to insert characteristics from other plants or animals with the precision needed to actually ‘edit’ DNA, functioning like a word processor with ‘Search and Replace’ functions.
Keep in mind that while the tool has made worldwide headlines it is best categorized as ‘basic research’. Still, the future isn’t hard to see and it is coming rapidly. Once scientists know how to precisely edit the DNA of an organism, resulting in fully inheritable traits, Pandora has arrived.
The benefits could be legion.
Citrus is the highest value international fruit crop and important to Florida’s economy. A disease called Citrus Greening is ravaging Florida citrus, reducing yields from more than 200 million annual boxes a mere decade ago to around 70 million predicted this year, resulting in the loss of about $800 million dollars to Florida’s farmers.
The horticultural industry- worth about $1.6 billion annually- could benefit, too; ornamentals are plagued by countless pests.
Other examples abound:
The ability legumes to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen into the soil could be transferred genetically, again reducing the cost of fertilizers. Malaria resistant mosquitos could be developed along with new tools to study MS, cancer, or sickle cell anemia. We could rid the Everglades of melaleuca.
We could also create red-flowering Black Olive trees.
What sort of limits should be placed on this tool- if indeed any are possible at all? Editing DNA, according to John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”
Your Design Pundit shares your skepticism.