Genetic fingerprinting is to help combat counterfeit varieties of plants in garden centres across Europe.
Researchers in Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands and France are collaborating on a Pounds 600,000 European Commission project on molecular analysis of protected varieties, which is exploring the feasibility of setting up a data bank to allow rapid identification of cultivated plants and detect frauds.
The problem of counterfeit varieties is more prevalent on the continent than in the United Kingdom. Around 80 per cent of plants such as roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are propagated easily and unscrupulous growers can make many hundreds of plants and pass them off as new varieties.
The main consequences of fraud are that the precise characteristics of the plant, such as frost hardiness, are not made available to the buyer, and plant breeders suffer from loss of royalties when fake names are given to varieties which they have originally registered.
Kirsten Wolff, of St Andrews University's school of biological and medical sciences, who has won a Pounds 180,000 share of the project, said molecular biology methods could be used to study plant DNA, especially when applied to identifying different varieties. Dr Wolff specialises in using molecular tools to investigate the evolution and ecology of wild species.
The project will initially concentrate on pelargonium, also known as geranium, which account for around 10 per cent of garden centre sales of ornamental plants, with the researchers attempting to build up a data bank of pelargonium's DNA "fingerprints".
At present new varieties are accepted on the basis that they look different from other plants during growth trials which last from one to three years. Once all the DNA fingerprints of cultivated varieties of pelargonium are available, identification will be conducted cheaply and within 48 hours. It will also be able to detect plants that have been propagated illegally, and the techniques could eventually be used for all cultivated plants.