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Beautiful Flowers--It's All in Their Genes

By Don Comis
August 11, 2004

As you visualize the orange and yellow mums--and maybe the purple asters--in your soon-to-be fall flower garden, consider what would happen if the genes for these flowers disappeared.

To make sure this doesn't happen, Agricultural Research Service scientists and cooperators are helping to preserve these genes as the genetic diversity of many popular flowers continues to shrink. Breeders often focus on beauty at the expense of other traits, while development threatens natural habitats. Both of these factors lead to a narrower gene pool.

ARS, Ohio State University and the American floriculture industry have created the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center in Columbus, Ohio, to preserve flower genes for this rapidly growing sector of U.S. agriculture.

Center director David Tay and colleagues are preserving flower genes--contained in seeds, bulbs, cuttings and plant tissue--in seed coolers, greenhouses and fields. The ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., keeps duplicates in highly secure storage.

Just three years old, the Ohio center is the newest addition to the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, which began in 1946 and now includes 26 genebanks across the country.

With its modern, 6,000-square-foot office-laboratory complex and an 11,500-square-foot greenhouse complex, the Columbus center is one of the few flower genebanks in the world. This year, the center added a tissue culture lab for housing tissues of daylilies, geraniums and other vegetatively propagated flowers. The center maintains a total collection of more than 2,000 plant accessions from around the world. It recently acquired an X-ray machine to screen out empty seeds and check for damage from cleaning.

The floriculture industry is vital to the economies of many states, like Ohio. Nationally, floriculture is a $13-billion-a-year industry, while globally it's worth about $50 billion.

Read more about the flower genebank in the current issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.