A line of red Baby's Breath flowers, known as Explora. .
(photo credit: IMAGINATURE LTD.)
As a young physics student in the Soviet Union, Prof. Alexander Vainstein never could have imagined that one day he’d be helping people with malaria, but that’s exactly what happened – and all thanks to some colorful flowers.
Vainstein has led a team of researchers at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, a satellite campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, since 1989. Part of his research explores what happens when you insert molecules into a plants. For the past several years, they have been looking into what occurs when compounds are inserted into the genetic base of existing plants.
This initially took the form of flower research with gypsophila, a small filler flower common in bouquets, known commonly as baby’s breath.
Until the researchers came along, the flower was only available in white and there were no other known variations.
Furthermore, its genetic makeup had not been studied before.
The researchers mapped out its genetic base and began testing what happens when molecules are added. After a few years, they created purplish- red baby’s breath and this year marks the first Valentine’s Day where the patented flower line, called Explora
, will be available in stores.
“The gypsophila is the first technology that I’ve seen in the store for real as a final product and it’s a very, very nice feeling,” he told The Jerusalem Post
at his laboratory in Rehovot.
The research has led has led to flowers with stronger scents, a characteristic that has been lost since most flowers are now being engineered to create more yield and last longer in a vase. His team disproved the belief that a stronger scent caused flowers to die faster.
Scent research for flowers has been more challenging since “what you think is nice and what I think is nice is not the same. A breeder can say he wants a red type of plant, but he can’t even explain what scent he wants,” Vainstein mused.
With petunias and roses, they were able to increase the scent, which attracted more bees and created better crop yields.
“That’s already a direct connection to money,” said Vainstein.
Because smell and taste go together, by modifying the smell of a plant the taste is modified, as well. This allowed the research to move from the pretty to the profound.
“The chemical pathway that causes a plant to generate a drug against malaria or a rose smell – it’s exactly the same pathway,” said Vainstein.
Ultimately, with the knowledge gained from the rosescent research, in 2011 they were able to find a better way to grow artemisinin, a natural compound that fights malaria.
The problem was that the Artemisia annua
, sweet wormwood, plant that produces artemisinin is thin, wispy and sensitive to changes in weather – causing supply and prices to fluctuate wildly and, therefore, putting the life-saving drug out of the reach of those who need it the most.
Vainstein’s team was able to genetically engineer tobacco plants to produce artemisinin and hopefully save millions from malaria’s deadly fate.
Meanwhile, consumers can look forward future Valentine’s Days that are even more colorful as Imaginature Ltd., which commissioned the Explora research, is looking into more color variations.
Although Vainstein stayed mum on the details, it’s obvious that the agriculture faculty labs are buzzing with breakthroughs.