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Special Series: innovation report #2

October 26, 2012  By VRIC research

A new petunia has been developed at the Vineland Research and Innovation
Centre that can survive without water for longer than traditional

A new petunia has been developed at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre that can survive without water for longer than traditional petunias. The plant was produced using an exciting new reverse genetics technology that Vineland researchers are now applying to other horticultural crops such as tomatoes and peppers, with the potential for many more.

The science of genetics is rooted in the observations of Gregor Mendel, a 19th century Austrian monk who recorded how certain traits were inherited in pea plants. This classical or “forward” approach to genetics starts with observing traits or characteristics in order to identify the genes or DNA sequences that are responsible.


Reverse genetics works in the opposite direction, using DNA sequence information to understand or influence characteristics of the whole plant.

Reverse genetics has only become possible in recent years with the development of high-tech, inexpensive DNA sequencing technologies and the resulting explosion of information linking DNA sequence to gene function. Vineland researchers have used this approach to develop a unique platform technology that mimics the natural variation that happens when single mutations occur in the plant’s DNA. Researchers can then identify a single plant among thousands by targeting specific gene sequences known to influence certain traits. This new, unique plant can then be used in breeding programs to develop varieties with favourable traits for commercial production.

Because of its similarity to naturally occurring mechanisms, this approach is not considered genetic modification and new varieties can move through the regulatory process more rapidly.

This past summer, Vineland researchers successfully demonstrated proof-of-concept for the reverse genetics platform with their first target trait – drought-tolerance in petunias.

The petunia is one of the world’s top two ornamental horticulture crops. Recent changes to the North American retail landscape have seen a much greater proportion of product now being sold through “big box” retailers, where growers are paid when the product swipes out at the cash register. In this retail environment, with minimal plant care, plants commonly wilt and die due to lack of watering and the producer bears the losses.

This challenge was addressed head on through a partnership struck with Ball Horticultural Company, the world’s largest supplier of petunia seed.

Several candidate genes were identified that were known to influence a plant’s water use and researchers set about screening a pool of thousands of mutated petunia plants to identify the one that had alterations in these genes. This petunia plant has now been shown to use about 15 per cent less water and can withstand drought conditions for 15 per cent longer. This first result could represent significant savings to the producer, both in reduced production costs and fewer losses at retail.

Drought-tolerant petunias are merely the first in a wide range of possibilities the reverse genetics platform could bring to a wide range of horticultural crops.

Others have now seen this potential and are choosing to invest in the technology. So far, more than $600,000 in research funds has been invested by a combination of industry groups and government granting agencies that includes Ball Horticultural Company, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, and OMAFRA. Investment in this project has also been provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program. In Ontario, this program is delivered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council.

Now, Vineland’s researchers are developing new populations of petunias, impatiens, tomatoes and peppers with target traits that include reduced input requirements, greater stress tolerance and improved consumer appeal.

The application of specific genetic technologies to create a unique reverse genetics platform will lead to plant varieties, such as the drought-tolerant petunia, that are tailored to regional growth conditions as well as those with broader international appeal.

Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is an independent, not-for-profit organization, funded in part by Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

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