Color Changing Flower FAQ

All about us! If you have a question we haven’t answered, or you want more in depth information, send us a note! We’ll add your question to the FAQ as we grow.

Who is Revolution Bioengineering?

We are Keira Havens and Nikolai Braun, plant molecular biologists passionate about biotechnology. One day we decided the time was right to take a daring step outside the comforts of the laboratory and make something beautiful. We teamed up with Prof. Helen Storey and Dr. Francesca Quattrocchio to build color-changing flowers in an exciting art project that explores the ever-changing relationship between nature, technology and society.

Why Petunias?

Petunias are unique – they’re both a wonderful, beautiful garden plant, and a laboratory workhorse! Petunia flowers have been studied for over 30 years, so we know a lot about the enzymes and pathways that make color possible. This allows us to engineer new and creative varieties now!

What other ideas do you have?

Oh man, we have so many ideas! We want to use biotechnology to do creative, amazing things, and flowers are a great place to start. In horticulture there are beautiful projects, like blue roses or flowers with polka dots, plants and flowers that involve all the senses (think of natural air fresheners, flowers that smell like vanilla maybe!), and ideas that are just common sense – how about a lawn that uses less water and stays green all summer?

It’s not just the garden that we’d like to build though – we’d like to change the way we use biotechnology. We want to use what we know about biology to build incredible plants to fulfill the promises we’ve been hearing about for so long. This means thinking outside the box and using biotech to develop plants that would be impossible to breed conventionally.

Is this going to work?

Yes, the flower that changes color on demand will work. It already does work! That little video of the flower going from white to red is a HUGE accomplishment – it proves that color-changing flowers are possible. Redesigning the plant to conform with USDA guidelines is simple compared to the original work to get the flower to change color in the first place.

Our other flower ideas are just that – concepts which require research to prove & develop. We have done the literature reviews, expert consultations, and design. Now we need to start working! It’s science, so we might be wrong about some things, but we could also make some unexpectedly cool discoveries. Contribute to the project and let the research begin!

What’s the difference between you and Glowing Plant?

Glowing Plant was a pioneer – they showed that people were interested in cool biotechnology, and they have been generous with their time and advice as we’ve gotten started (Antony, thank you again!).

We do approach things differently though. For one, both Nikolai and I are gardeners, plant biologists, and nature lovers. We’re making a color changing flower because we want to plant it in our own gardens. That means we want to make not just a beautiful flower, but one that grows well in the garden, and that means making partners throughout the existing horticultural industry.
Revolution Bioengineering is heavily focused on partnerships. We’ve spent a year traveling to England, Amsterdam, and Israel, getting to know the industry and scientists that will make our concept possible.

We’ve connected with growers in Colombia and Ecuador, and discussed what they need to grow great flowers. We’ve connected with plant groups in New Zealand, Japan, and throughout the US to learn more about the state of the art in floral biotechnology to figure out how we can build on all the basic research that has come before us. We’ve seen up close what it takes to get bedding plants from seed to shipped plants (amazing), and cut flowers from Africa to The Netherlands to just about everywhere else in the world (unbelievable).

We are in this for the plants. We know this is a long process – floral industry introductions of any new petunia takes about 5 years, plants like roses take much longer. We know the process is going to be expensive – biotechnology isn’t cheap, and we’ll need to pay people for all that time. We also know it’s worth it to add beauty to the world.

Don’t some flowers already change color?

Absolutely! Hydrangeas are a beautiful example of a color changing flower, as are Lantanas and Brunfelsia. Researchers that have studied the mechanisms of these naturally occurring color-changing flowers gave us the scientific foundation to develop a flower that you can change color.

Are these GMOs?

Yes. We are genetically modifying the petunia to change colors. This isn’t something you can do through conventional breeding – to make a color-changing flower, you need biotechnology.

How will this affect pollinators?

This should have a very small effect on pollinators. We are following in nature’s footsteps: there are 429 types of flowers which already change color in response to a number of environmental stimuli. It turns out that pollinators can adapt to color-changes in their environment, learning which flowers have nectar and which don’t! We spoke with Dr. Weiss from Georgetown University to learn more – she’s spent her whole career studying color changing flowers and their pollinators.

Is it safe to put these in the environment?

We believe so – we’re developing the plant in accordance with USDA guidelines to develop a ‘non-regulatable’ plant. These rules ensure the plant we develop is unlikely to become a pest. In addition, we’re working with an annual flower – this means that it dies each winter in most US and European zones. Plus, we will be propagating these petunias vegetatively – no seed distribution for us. The petunia will go in the ground where you want it and stay there.

Don’t take our word for it though! Our long timeline gives us time to thoroughly explore potential negative effects with soil and ecological, and bioethics experts. We will rely on these experts to assess the risks associated with planting these petunias in the garden and update you as we receive the information.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of a GMO.

That’s okay! It’s a complicated and confusing topic to research and it’s hard to get unbiased information. We have designed this plant in response to common criticisms about the technology – here’s what they are.

  • The color changing petunia is not food.
  • It contains no herbicides
  • It contains no insecticides
  • This flower only lives for one year
  • We are using plant genetic pieces wherever possible

Can the genes spread to wild populations?

We have been hybridizing petunias for hundreds of years, and we can use the gene flow of these flowers as a guide to the type of gene flow we can expect with our flower. The wild stock, which lives in the jungles of South America, has not been impacted by the huge number of hybrids that we have developed over the centuries. Therefore, it is unlikely that our color-changing flower will affect the wild population of petunias.

How does a color changing flower work?

We have two concepts here – both of them use anthocyanins, the naturally occurring small molecules that color flowers and fruits.

1)Color change on demand. This is the flower we are crowdfunding for! In this flower, the anthocyanin pathway is broken and the plant cannot produce anthocyanins – all the flowers are white. We can use genetic engineering to introduce the missing enzyme on a biological switch that allows the flower to bloom in full color. In this case, we’re using a tiny amount of ethanol – this tells the flower to start producing the enzyme, and start producing color. You could say that the ethanol makes it blush! Learn more with our infographic here.

2)Continuous color changing petunia. This flower is designed, but not yet prototyped. Flowers (& fruits & vegetables) are colored by anthocyanins, small molecules that absorb in the visible spectrum. They’re stored in a plant cell compartment known as the vacuole, and they’re very sensitive to their environment. If you change the environment in the compartment, say by adding ions or a new molecule, you change the color of the flower. We’re going to connect this environmental change to the plant circadian clock, which controls processes like photosynthesis. It doesn’t make any sense to make photosynthetic proteins in the dark, so the plant instead uses genetic regulatory elements to ensure these proteins are only made during the day. We’ll use these same, naturally occurring regulatory elements to make color-changing flowers. Learn more from our infographic.

How fast does it change color?

1)Color change on demand – The video you see is a time lapse of a 24 hour color change. You can see that by hour 8, the flower is definitely pink. This means that if you water your plant with ethanol in the morning, the new flowers will be red by the time you return from work!

2)Continuous color change –We expect our flower to cycle between blue and pink every 12 hours. The circadian clock is on a 24 hour cycle, and different groups of proteins are produced at different times of the day. So 12 hours from when our enzymes are produced, the flower should change color – one color in the morning, another in the evening!

Why can’t I see the prototype flower now?

You can see the prototype if you went to Amsterdam and toured our partner’s lab. Our prototype flower is built for laboratory use only, and isn’t permitted to be moved around in outdoor settings. Rebuilding the flower to conform to USDA guidelines will allow this, and we will be able to freely distribute it in the USA.

Looking for Geemo?

Geemo is our 2015 April Fools – a GMO (Geemo) detecting GMOs! The flower has been featured in the Smithsonian, Popular Science, and many more publications.”Geemo” changes colors when you add ethanol, from white to red, but the only GMO it is detecting is itself. Our color changing flowers are engineered by scientists to change color – to make a flower that changes color on demand, you need biotechnology.

One thought on “Color Changing Flower FAQ

  1. Pingback: We are making color changing flowers using biotechnology. Ask us anything! | Reddit Spy

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