Odor Engineers

Showy plants usually don't smell good, and that's a problem for pollination.

By Josie GlausiuszOct 1, 2000 5:00 AM


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Inbred flowers often have disappointingly banal aromas— and that's a problem for farmers as much as for romantics. Plants that have been selected for their large fruit or bold blooms often have little energy left over for the manufacture of sweet smells. Without a strong fragrance, the plants have trouble attracting pollinating bees and birds. But help is on the way. Natalia Dudareva, a plant molecular biologist at Purdue University, recently isolated the gene for methyl benzoate, a major component of the scent of snapdragons (right). This gene seems to be a blueprint for plant smell: Some 30 to 40 other agriculturally important plants, including tobacco and the petunia, use the same smell-generation system.

Intensive breeding evidently deactivates the gene. Dudareva plans to put additional copies of the key DNA into de-scented flowers to restore their scent— or even impart entirely new aromas to naturally odor-impaired blooms. "If we can increase scent, for example, to apple trees, the flowers will attract more pollinators or recruit new foragers. And that means better fruit quality," she says.

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