Making sense of the floral scent of petunias

26 Jul 2023

Flowers emit scent chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which play an essential role in attracting pollinators and seed dispersers. In a joint study with Purdue University, Dr Liao Pan, Assistant Professor of the Department of Biology, has uncovered how metabolic engineering can alter VOCs from being released from the plant and how to devise a novel strategy to decrease the unfavourable odour from plants. Dr Liao and  the team experimented with the Petunia flower and discovered that by down regulating the expression of a certain gene in the petunia petals, VOC emission can be reduced.

Implications of metabolic engineering in plants

According to the research findings, which have since been published in the academic journal Nature Communications, the study has far-reaching implications, ranging from environmental protection to industrial operations, and future sustainability studies on how to remove undesirable gases in the environment.

Of all flowers, why was the petunia chosen? “It’s much easier to work with petunias which have high floral volatile emission, especially during the evening. Each day from 6 to 10 in the evening, we would be in the lab doing the scent collection late into the night to make sure we get consistent results. The slightest change in weather conditions such as temperatures and the duration of the light and its intensity all affect the growing of the petunia plants and their emission of volatiles in the greenhouse,” says Dr Liao.

Opportunities for commercial use and patents

The research and commercial possibilities of metabolic engineering of plants are limitless. With the originality of their work, opportunities for being patented and commercialised may just be around the corner.  Transferring the gene of a fragrant flower to otherwise pretty but scentless flowers for generating a new variety with both properties, perfume making or aromatherapy, cross breeding or metabolic engineering fruits and vegetables to make them more succulent (or in Dr Liao’s words, “… to bring back the taste of one’s childhood!”) are just a few promising applications of the VOC research findings.

“Plant biochemistry and metabolism is an interesting and important research area with the potential to generate original and exciting results. These findings not only enrich our knowledge of basic research, but also generate novel strategies for their applications in agriculture, horticulture, food, perfume, and even the pharmaceutical industry. I hope that our research will motivate and encourage more students to join this field when they graduate,” Dr Liao concludes.