Case Study

How does research help one to grow orchids? Isn't basic research esoteric? While specific research topics may indeed sound obtuse, the information obtained usually has practical implications. Before a practical research project can be initiated, a strong foundation of basic information is required. An example of the interrelationship between fundamental and practical research involves the study of flower senescence.

The American Orchid Society in 1973 provided support to Michael Strauss in Dr. Joseph Arditti's laboratory at the University of California at Irvine to document the events that lead to the natural wilting of Cymbidium flowers. He determined that, after pollination, a hormone (auxin) found within the pollen, triggered a second hormone (ethylene) that caused the flower to wilt.

This information was used by Dr. Sharman O'Neill from the University of California at Davis to propose a more detailed study with Phalaenopsis that was funded by the American Orchid Society in 1990. Her grant was entitled "Molecular Genetic Regulation of Orchid Flower Senescence." The results of this research were the identification of two major genes that were responsible for inducing senescence or flower wilting (S.D. O'Neill, J.A. Nadeau, X.S. Zhang, A.Q. Bui and A.H. Halevy, 1993. Interorgan regulation of ethylene biosynthesis genes by pollination. Plant Cell 5: 419–432).

Dr. O'Neill used this preliminary data to obtain a major grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue this line of research. In a recent report, she states, "AOS funding provided the initial support that was necessary to initiate several lines of research that are now sufficiently advanced to attract funding from federal research agencies. This new funding provided the basis to substantially multiply AOS support and provides a strong base to more fully develop the molecular biology of orchids."

In 1991, the American Orchid Society funded Ms. Janette Nadeau, a doctoral student in Dr. O'Neill's laboratory, to determine the temporal and spatially regulation of ethylene forming enzyme. This research carried Dr. O'Neill's work one step further by following the action of one of the two major genes involved in senescence (Nadeau, Zhang, Nair and O'Neill, 1993. Plant Physiology 103: 31–39).