What color is this?

Departments - The Growing Edge

Blue and black? White and gold? Red and white? How about both?

April 1, 2015

Color, and our perception of it, has been making more headlines than usual. Everyone, it seems, developed a passionate stance on what color scheme, exactly, “the dress” was (if you're unfamiliar, Google "the dress"). And the subsequent fallout, which spread infectiously across the nooks and crannies of the Internet, led to a rambling discussion of how human beings digest the color spectrum.

But maybe the answer to our morphing perception of carmines and aquas and lavenders isn’t to accept categorical differences in the presence of certain cones within our eyes, but to develop products that can be all things to all people. Futuristic as it might sound, color-changing items are already in existence or being developed in most markets, some of them just happen to be GMOs.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have a certain reputation. They’re terrifying monstrosities or divine technological revelations, depending on who you talk to. They’re polarizing. It seems folks either love or hate them, believe they’re pollutants or a massive break-through. Which makes it unlikely that the vitriolic conversation swirling around GMOs could be dragged to a calmer, more level middle-ground.

The newest such item? Color-changing petunias.

A company called Revolution Bioengineering is pioneering the product. Founder Keira Havens, along with cofounder Nikolai Braun, developed the plant. The petunia blooms white when irrigated with normal water. The plant then morphs red when irrigated with a special solution. The transformation takes 24 hours to take hold.

“When Nikolai and I came across the idea of color-changing flowers we both said, 'That’s neat. We should try and make that happen,” Havens says. “We’ve partnered with researchers in the Netherlands who have worked with petunias for 30 years and an artist who is going to use these flowers to bring the concept to as wide an audience as possible.”

However, despite both being Ph.D.s in molecular plant biology, the duo was unable to find funding via traditional routes (donors and corporations) for their project.

“We are newer scientists. Our publication record is not that long. We don’t have an established lab, we’re renting space. For a traditional loaner, that’s a tough sell,” Havens says. “And you might think that this is a no-brainer for a large company to fund, but large companies are paralyzed by public perception at this point. There is still a group of people that appear to be very loudly anti biotechnology and anti-GMOs.”

But Havens believes most people are indifferent to GMOs. If the product is worthwhile, the opinion of the majority will swing towards pro-GMO sympathies. If the product serves no purpose, the pendulum of opinion will go the other direction.

“We want to stop that bumper sticker shouting and include more folks who don’t necessarily have an ideology behind them, people that are just interested in what the technology can do,” Havens says.

To promote a more balanced conversation, Revolution has emphasized their independence from corporate structure and the scientific safety features and protocols they observed in the development of the plant.

“We’ve designed it, from the beginning, to address some of the concerns that people always bring up about human health, pesticides, herbicides, all of those things,” Havens says.

Revolution is going to make its appeal to the middle using a single, tried-and-true feeling: coolness.

“Our idea is basically, if we can get that silent middle, that big group of people to say, 'Yeah, that’s a cool thing, I’ll give $10,' then we’ll start to change the conversation,” she says.

They set a fundraising goal of $75,000 (at the time of this publication, they’re roughly 25 percent fulfilled, with $17,650 in donations). Whether they’re ultimately successful or not, the early returns suggest Havens is right about GMOs. Many of the comments that dot the company’s Facebook page are supportive. One woman even wrote, “What a fun use of GMOs! What a great idea!” And while there have been occasional negative comments, the tone of what’s written lacks the usual acidity seen on the Internet. Some have even prompted candid conversations.

The next two years will be crucial. If they receive full funding, then the company will focus on getting USDA approval for the product. That process may require some re-engineering of the plant. They’re also reaching out to other industry experts for broad range risk assessment, including insight on pollination and the specific of color-changing flowers. After a year of approvals and investigation, the color-changing petunia will be productized and moved to market, making it available to the general consumer.

To learn more about the campaign, visit www.colorchangingflowers.com



We mistakenly published photos of a monarch butterfly caterpillar in our February issue in the article “The case of the caterpillar.” Since monarch butterflies are in decline due to a variety of factors, it would have been more appropriate to publish a photo of a different species of caterpillar. We at Greenhouse Management apologize for the error and have removed the photos from the web version of the article.