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Fall 2007 - Restoring

Destination Purdue > Fall 2007 - Restoring

Restoring the lost scent of flowers

By Lauren Nikides

Although nothing may smell as sweet as a rose to a person in love, that scent isn't what it used to be. Selective breeding of roses and other flowers has reduced the amount of scent flowers produce. And while flowers may be sweet, the business of restoring scents to flowers is, well, business.

Natalia Dudareva examines petunias

Photo by Janet Beagle

Natalia Dudareva, horticulture professor and Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research, examines petunias in a greenhouse. Her goal is to bring back the scent to these and other flowers.

Getting down to business for Natalia Dudareva, a horticulture professor and Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research, means countless hours of research and hard work. "We are trying to bring back the floral scent in snapdragons and petunias by collecting samples from the flowers, isolating the enzymes and checking the activity from different enzymes in the flowers," Dudareva said.

Although the science behind restoring a flower's scent sounds complex, the reason flowers lose their scent is actually simple. During the breeding process, breeders spurned scent to pursue the more attractive charms of a longer shelf life, size, shape and color. Scent requires a lot of a flower's energy, and that takes away from what breeders concentrate on most: a longer shelf life. Shelf life is so valuable because the longer the flowers last, the longer customers can enjoy the beauty and romance behind them.

However, Dudareva and her students have different priorities. By preserving the scent of flowers, they're preserving the same smell that tells you it's the first bloom in spring, when you finally know the long, dreadful winter is over and it's time again for shorts and flip-flops. The scents that many love and know have been taken for granted for a long time, but when they're gone, flower breeders will really feel their absence and want to get them back.

While putting the scent back into spring may be a big part of what motivates Dudareva and her students to spend countless hours researching, it's not their only motivation. "The motivation behind what I do is partly because I always like to discover new things and discover how cells work," Dudareva said. While Dudareva is motivated by discovering new things, one of her students, Amy Marshall-Colon, a third-year graduate student from Parkersburg, W.Va., draws her passion for this research from another source.

"I personally am motivated by the interesting results we get. It is also motivating to be in a lab that is on the cutting edge of technology and research in our area. I learn new technologies monthly and feel that I am getting very good training," Marshall-Colon said. No matter their motivations, for Dudareva and Marshall-Colon, a more fragrant flower is the sweet smell of success.