Where roses are mauve and zebrafish glow

The day your son asks for a genetically engineered glow-in-the dark zebra fish and your wife desires a mauve rose may be the day that public acceptance of plant and animal genetic engineering has finally arrived.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that a new variety of rose, genetically engineered to be an unusual shade of blue, does not pose a risk to the economy or ecosystems. This decision paves the way for the company, Florigene, to sell cut roses in the US. The mauve creation is based on the discovery by Davis-based biotech pioneer Calgene Inc, which isolated the “blue gene” from Petunia.

Is genetic engineering for entertainment what it takes for biotechnology to be accepted by consumers?

Physicist and philosopher Freeman Dyson thinks so.

In a provocative lecture on TED.com, Dyson says that proliferation of glow-in-the-dark zebra fish, fruit cocktail trees (7 species on one tree -already very popular with backyard gardeners) or even a grow your own dog kit is exactly what it will take before biotechnology becomes accepted as part of the human condition.

“We should follow the model that has been so successful with the electronic industry.” Dyson said. “What really turned computers into a great success in the world as a whole, was toys. As soon as computers became toys, when the kids could come home and play with them, then the industry took off. That has to happen with biotech.”

We may believe this or even recognize that it is true, but if so, doesn’t this vision condemn us to a kind of self-centeredness? Isn’t it a declaration that most of our behavior is governed by an emotional response to pleasure and an acknowledgement that pursuit of entertainment is what truly drives us to action?

I would like to believe that most wealthy world citizens have more compassion, more imagination and more humanity than that. That we will soon wake up and applaud applications of biotechnology that have reduced the amount of insecticides in the environment or those that have the potential to save the lives of thousands of malnourished children.

Will such humanistic inventive applications of biotechnology ever appear as essential to consumers in the developed world as a lego set that self-assembles into a live cat? Are more glofish and strangely colored roses needed before we accept biotechnological advances in agriculture?