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The appliance of science; HOME TRUTHS.

Byline: John Humphries

The BUY a chrysanthemum this spring or a pot of African violets and there is every chance they started life in vitro dishes as pieces of plant material grown in nutrient-rich solution in a controlled laboratory environment.

If you marvel at the out-ofseason tomatoes on supermarket shelves, it doesn't always follow they were grown under plastic on the sunny Costa del Sol.

The answer might be they are long-shelf-life tomatoes in which the DNA has been manipulated.

Plant breeding, which has taken place HOME TRUTHS John Humphries Those extra-large Brussels sprouts at Christmas were at the end of a long chain of breeding experiments to produce parents genetically modified by artificial cross-pollination so that their off-spring inherited exceptional characteristics.

And then there are virus free seed potatoes, new varieties appearing every spring as regularly as the first cuckoo.

Seed catalogues are awash with new varieties, coated with growth promoters, treated against various diseases, and capable of surviving environmental extremes.

While it is possible many of the plants introduced into our gardens nowadays have been modified with the inevitable impact that has on bio-diversity, none of this, I am assured, is remotely to do with the controversy over genetically modified seed.

since the dawn of time, is supposedly quite different from inserting the DNA of a fish into a tomato so that it jumps on to your plate!

As a non-scientist, I still remain to be convinced.

In previous winters, I have lost several Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax), a plant that presently features amongst the most popular at garden centres, its swordshaped leaves providing a striking contrast in the herbaceous borders.

In its native habitat it survives -10C, a temperature that is rare for my Gwent garden, which leaves me wondering whether some of the hardiness has been bred out of the newer varieties of Phormium.

Micro-propagation has been with us for 80 years, during which time it has become vitally important to the viability of the horticultural industry.

Anyone who has taken cuttings that fail need not be reminded of all the wasted effort that entails.

Commercial growers cannot afford this uncertainty.

Consequently, the discovery in the 1920s that orchid seed could be germinated in a nutrient rich medium in a test tube launched a technology now widely used in the production of pot plants, cut-flowers, and increasingly for the propagation of trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials, all from microscopic pieces of material derived from a single stock plant.

The aim is to breed plant clones, as many as possible, and to grow them on as fast as possible using growth hormones, one for the roots and another for shoot development.

The procedure produces problems, such as luxuriant foliage growth if the added hormones are not synchronised, unusual bacterial activity, as well as mutant plants, which hopefully are weeded out and burned before they escape into the environment.

Micro-propagation may not be the same as gene transfer - from one species to another- presently at the centre of the current controversy.

But gardeners already live with the impact that it is having on our native flora, specifically on bio-diversity in the garden.

But there is an upside, too. The micro-propagation of diseasefree new varieties when the world-wide demand for garden plants has grown astronomically will help to reverse the decline in our national stock of naturally propagated plants.

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New varieties of virus free seed potatoes appear every spring
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 23, 2010
Words:573
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