Nature doesn't make a whole lot of blue things. Out of the 280,000 species of flowering plants on Earth, less than 10 percent make blue flowers. But these are hipster flowers, flying low under the public radar. There's no real market for them. Blue roses, carnations, lilies, or chrysanthemums, though: now those are products florists could take to the bank.
Or they could, if scientists could get them to work. Flower experts have been trying to breed blue flowers for centuries, to no avail. The horticultural societies of Britain and Belgium even put up a cash prize in the 1800s for the first person to breed a true blue rose. Nobody won.
But bioengineering is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. Today's plant experts can tinker with an organism's genetic code to coax it into doing things nature never intended it to do. By 2005, scientists sponsored by the Japanese company Suntory had that blue rose—although "blue" may be a generous term.
Next up for researchers was the chrysanthemum, a species that may be even more significant than the rose in Japan. Chrysanthemums are everywhere there, appearing on coins, passports, clothing, and art. They symbolize autumn, but also the monarchy, the imperial throne, and the nation of Japan itself. Making a blue mum would be a huge cultural achievement (not to mention a potential goldmine).
Researchers from Suntory and Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization decided to swipe a few tricks from two preexisting blue flower species, Canterbury bells and the butterfly pea. Both species owe their color to pigments called anthocyanins. These pigments appear in chrysanthemums, too, but a slightly different molecular structure means that they make red and purple petals, not blue ones.
By swiping multiple genes from the two blue species and adding them to the mum's genetic blueprint, the scientists were able to reshape the chrysanthemum anthocyanins to make what botanists call "true blue."
Once again, "blue" may be a generous term.
"Their flowers are like a cool lavender at best," artist and biohacker Sebastian Cocioba, who is trying to genetically engineer a blue rose, told Gizmodo. "I could never feel comfortable calling that blue."
The researchers acknowledge that they've got more work to do, and say they have ideas for how to create a bluer flower. "However," lead author Naonobu Noda noted to Gizmodo, "as there is no [single] gene to realize it, it may be difficult."