Hawaii hopes to get blues

April 2, 2004

The University of Hawaii's department of tropical plant and soil sciences has embarked on a ten-year quest to develop the first blue orchid.

Students and faculty in the department assist Hawaii's commercial flower growers to produce breeds that last longer, smell better and come in novel colours.

Adelheid Kuehnle, who heads the programme, said: "Orchids have always had a certain mystique. They're exotic and difficult to grow. And there are not many true blue flowers."

Hawaii has a unique relationship with the state's commercial growers, many of them small independent farmers.

"Our mission is to serve our constituency, and our constituents are tropical flower growers," said Dr Kuehnle, who often meets with growers to discuss her work.

It is a mutually beneficial collaboration that has been going on for four decades. The university's breeding and biotechnology programme has developed an estimated 90 per cent of the dendrobium orchids and 70 per cent of the anthuriums in production in Hawaii, whose tropical flower industry earns $92 million (£51 million) a year. The university receives royalties of $14 million a year from the Tropic Fire potted anthurium, which it developed and patented in 1997.

Dr Kuehnle's department also produced the world's first commercial scented anthurium, called Princess Aiko after the first grandchild of Emperor Akihito of Japan. The pink anthurium is expected to be commercially available within three years.

A dendrobium orchid developed in the lab with more hardy petals has double the usual number of chromosomes, and is more durable than typical orchids.

Dendrobiums are worth more than $11 million a year to the local flower industry.

A blue orchid could be the industry's biggest hit. Dr Kuehnle started working on the flower in 1996, focusing on the genes that encode enzymes that determine colour. She has introduced the blue genes, which are expressing, meaning they are active. But it will take another two years to see if the strategy has worked.

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