Building A Better Petunia

Jul 25, 2016

We’re learning a lot more about the workhorse of the world’s flower beds and planter boxes: the Petunia Genome Project is complete, with the help of researchers from Northern Illinois University.

Dr. Rick Johns in his office at Northern Illinois University
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

NIU professors Tom Sims and Rick Johns were among the primary researchers in the four year project. Johns says mapping the petunia’s DNA involved 50 researchers from 10 countries.

Science used to be one scientist working in a lab with a few students but now international collaboration is the rule, not the exception.

Now that it’s mapped…what’s the point of sequencing the DNA of a petunia? Johns says it will help people develop new colors, new scents, new traits in the popular flower. Plus, the petunia is related to some very important crops: tomatoes, peppers, tobacco… Having a “parts list” will help researchers solve problems.

We aren’t going to feed the starving masses with petunias specifically. But it does carry over to the food crop. Growing beautiful flowers is important to our human spirit and we need more beauty in the world. And we don’t need to be thinking strictly about utilitarian things all the time.

The work has been published in the Journal Nature and is available to anyone through the genetic sequence database, GenBank.