Interview conducted and provided by the Biopresence Press Office. Part 1 Part 2
Q. The Common Flowers Project is on display as part of this year’s Ars Electronica, a Media Art Festival in Linz, Austria. How do you feel being part of that festival?
Georg Tremmel: It’s great to be invited to show the Common Flowers at such a prestigious festival. We are also very happy, that the project was awarded an ‘Honorary Mention’ in Hybrid Art Category.
Q. Your Project deals with genetically-modified blue carnations. Can you tell me a bit more about them?
GT. Yeah. We think, that the blue GM carnations are very relevant and very special flowers. As far as we know, they are the very first genetically-modified product, which is neither animal feed not human food. It is purely aimed for aesthetic consumption. We believe that this represents a shift in the perception of GM plants, and that’s why we found the highly interesting in the first place.
The plants themselves are the result of decade long research by Florigene, an australian plant biotech company, which was acquired by the japanese beverage company Suntory some year back. They managed to make a couple of varieties of the blue carnation, ranging from a very light blue hue, to some quite dark blue varieties. In addition to the gene for colour, they also introduced a gene that prolongs shelf-live. The last for about 3 weeks, which is quite long for cut-flowers.
Q. But would it be easier to colour the flower with inks? Wouldn’t that be much easier, that breeding a special variety?
Shiho Fukuhara: If you would only make a couple of flowers, the ink process you mentioned would be faster, but my guess would be, that on an industrial scale it would not really make sense to use ink colouring. Too much hassle, too expensive, and probably the flowers would also not last so long.
But once you manage to create a transgene plant, which looks and behaves to your desire, it is then quite easy to duplicate and breed that plant. Really the same as growing any other non-GM plant. And don’t forget, that the cut-flower business is a huge global logistic operation, just think of the flower auctions in the Netherlands. And Suntory figured, that introducing novel varieties could be very profitable. Very profitable indeed.
Q. There are other blue flowers. Why is it not possible to conventionally breed blue carnations?
SF. As far as I know, some flowers are missing some genes and pathway, and these missing bit prevent them from making blue pedals. Obvious carnation, but also roses don’t come in blue.
Q. So they managed to make the blue carnations, but isn’t it illegal to sell genetically modified products? Especially in Europe the public seems to be very sensitive about this issue?
GT. Well, they spent a lot of time, effort and probably money to conduct trials and experiments that proved that the flowers are harmless and pose no risk to animals, humans or other plants. They were granted permission to grow, sell and distribute the flowers in their key markets, including Japan, the EU and the US.
Therefore, the plant are 100% legal, despite being genetically modified.
Q. Is it known, which genes from which plants were used to change the carnation?
GT. I believe they used a gene from Petunia to express the blue colour. No idea, what they used for the extended shelf-life, but I guess this could be easily found out. All the information regarding the genetic-manipulation of plants is freely accessible.
Q. And with your “Common Flower” project you are growing the carnation yourself?
GT. Exactly. We buy the flowers from a flower shop, cut them in small pieces, sterilize them and grow the in sterile plant containers.
SF. One could say we are bringing the flowers back to life.
GT. Yeah. Kind of. Cut flowers are basically dying a slow death from the moment they are cut. But if they are kept cool and with enough water they can survive quite a while. At least some weeks to get to the show and to the buyers house.
Carnations also come with so-called axillary buds, that are little buds that grow between each leaf and the stem. These are the most promising part for re-animation.
Q. Sounds quite complicated. Surely you must have a biotech background and a lab to your disposal…
GT. Actually no and no. We neither have a biotech background not a lab. But we have a strong interest in learning and doing basic lab work. Although our lab is the kitchen and our clean-room is an inverted plastic box.
SF. For plant containers we use baby food jars. They are ideal…
GT. … Or sake cups. The “One Cup Oseki” is particularly nice. They have nature scenes printed on the backside of the label. So when our plant are growing they can perceive images of beautiful nature.
SF. Don’t be silly.
GT. And the protocols and lists of ingredients can be downloaded from our website. It’s quite easy to get all the necessary stuff, the most difficult parts are the plastic caps for the baby food jars. They are a bit special, but they are also super cheap, and once you buy them they last forever.
SF. It’s very important for use to share and communicate this technology. We want to learn it and pass it on. Ideally everyone with interest and a bit of time should be able to grow their own blue carnations.
Q. The project title is “Common Flowers – Flower Commons”. Can you tell me a bit more about the second part, about the “Flower Commons”. What is meant by that?
GT. Common Flowers refers to the process of taking ownership of the very ‘special flowers’ that are the GM blue carnations. The goal is somewhat to take them down from their pedestal and make them ordinary. Flower Commons is the next logical step. Once we have the flowers, we can obviously not keep them in the containers forever. We realized pretty soon, that Suntory actually did do the dirty and difficult work for us. They got the permission to grow them, they obtained the proof that the plants are harmless.
Therefore we decided to set the flowers free. We want to create feral population of genetically modified blue carnation. In fact we already created some Flower Commons in Japan, Germany and also Austria. We also made a nice map of the locations, but we decided to keep it hidden for a bit longer, and see how the public reacts to the project here at the Ars Electronica.
Watch out for Part 2 for more about Bio-Sharing, Bio-Hacking, the legal challenges and the meaning of “BCL”.