Heliconias: A new challenge for the Colombian floricultural industry
Lucia Atehortua
Keywords:  Flowers/Ornamentals; Colombia; Biodiversity prospecting; Intellectual property rights; Cell-/Tissue culture. 
Correct citation: Atehortua, L. (1997), "Heliconias: A new challange for the Colombian floricultural industry." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 31, p. 20­21.

Despite Colombia's great biodiversity, its floricultural industry concentrates on non-native plant species such as chrysanthemums, roses and carnations. This situation is due to a lack of scientific and technical knowledge about domestication of native species. Consequently, the University of Antioquia has started a research programme on local heliconia species with an expected international market. Biotechnology is used as a tool to overcome domestication and marketing problems.

In 1984, the Colombian government launched a new inventory of Columbia's plant biodiversity, the second Colombian Botanical Expedition. This initiative was coordinated by COLCIENCIAS, the main governmental research agency in Colombia. The Expedition involved several disciplines, among them phytochemistry. The Department of Biology of the University of Antioquia was granted a four year, US$ 21,000 research project to carry out a floristic inventory of the state of Antioquia. Because of the lack of specialized and well-trained taxonomists in Colombia, taxonomical specialists of the Missouri and New York Botanical Gardens joined in the project.
The result of the inventory was a data base of 11,500 species including some fungi groups, mosses, ferns and related species, gymnosperms, and angiosperm plants. The inventory proved to be a useful mechanism for developing subsequent research projects in several departments of the University of Antioquia, including the Departments of Chemistry, Anthropology and Law. The Department of Biology formulated the Heliconia Research Programme. After studying several possibilities to develop a new agricultural alternative out of Colombia's natural biodiversity, it was decided to concentrate on heliconias because of the availability of a great diversity of naturally occurring species (92 species of which 48 are endemic in Colombia). In addition, as the world's second largest exporter of cut flowers, Colombia may be able to introduce a new tropical product on the international cut flower market. Thus, the incorporation of tropical exotic plant species may stimulate socio-economic developments and may provide an alternative for the growing of illicit crops.
After the decision in favour of heliconias, a working group composed of academics and farm technicians formulated research priorities. This interdisciplinary team decided to concentrate on the domestication of wild heliconia species. However, most of those involved had no research experience with wild species and relevant literature on domestication of tropical species for similar goals was not available. Starting from scratch, the working group received funds from COLCIENCIAS in 1992 for a study of the ecology and phenology of two heliconia species to gather knowledge about the in situ conditions under which the two species usually grow. This enabled the development of a standard for commercial production of the two heliconia species.

The use of biotechnology
Biotechnology has been considered helpful to solve some of the problems related to the domestication of heliconias. Multiplication of heliconias was the first problem because of the slow germination of its seeds (about three months to three years). Multiplication by rhizome (the underground stem of a heliconia) is also time consuming and therefore hardly an alternative. Hence, the research project aimed at the development of a tissue culture protocol for heliconia.
From the beginning, the development of a protocol for the regeneration of in vitro heliconia tissue was difficult. The project started from well developed banana tissue culture protocols, because of their close phylogenetic relationship with heliconias. One difficulty that the project had to overcome in the in vitro regeneration was the elimination of Pseudomonas solanacearum from the explants of heliconia rhizomes. This omnipresent bacterial pathogen for many crops was directly brought in from the field. Currently, the in vitro plants obtained after regeneration are monitored and evaluated in the field. The aim is to detect somaclonal variations and to select mutants, such as dwarf plants. Such mutants could be interesting for commercial production if found stable in subsequent regeneration processes.
Protocols of production on commercial scale for some heliconia species are now available. Recently, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has granted US$ 206,000 for a demonstration project on heliconia and related species in the state of Antioquia. The demonstration project includes a demonstration field for which the heliconia project will provide in vitro produced plantlets. It is expected that heliconia production might be an alternative to illicit crops for marginalized people in this violent area. However, in vitro production is too expensive for local producers (US$ 0.40 to 0.50 per unit). For this reason, the development of an alternative, reproduction system was included in the project. This should have the advantage of speeding up reproduction, while at the same time it is inexpensive. Such an alternative may be the production of plants by somatic embryogenesis instead of the above described organogenesis. With embryogenesis (or embryo culture) plant tissues instead of single cells are encouraged to form new plants. Embryo culture can be scaled up in bioreactors, which reduces cost. Finally the long-term aim  of the project is to produce synthetic seeds, i.e. an embryo encapsulated in a protective sheath similar to natural seed. However, even in crops that are better studied than heliconias, the successes of synthetic seeds are limited in number.

Future research directions
In the future, when the project has mastered the basic technologies, and has accomplished a thorough study of existing in situ and ex situ germplasm, the project will use biological and molecular genetic techniques to genetically improve the species. This will facilitate production on a commercial scale. The future research agenda includes:

Bias to non-native plants
The Colombian floriculture industry centres its production around non-native plants. Its investment in research is very limited. For example, the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES) has recently approached universities and research centres for research in the field of cut flowers. However, ASOCOLFLORES did not show any interest in research on domestication of native flower species. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Colombian government has not created any incentive to use Colombian biodiversity to strengthen commercial agriculture. Only a few of the 35 plant tissue culture laboratories have done limited work on native species due to the lack of funds and qualified personnel. Most of the work carried out in these laboratories is based on contracts with companies and devoted to plantain and banana mass production. This has resulted in a situation that even in a country with a rich biodiversity, the claim that national biodiversity can be valorized and developed continues to be rhetorical speech.
This does not mean that heliconia is not commercially interesting. There is a potential demand in the USA, Asia and Germany. Currently, flowers of the Heliconia attratensis, an endemic species of Colombia, is offered at a price of between US$ 0.70 and US$ 2.50 per flower on the international market, while the rhizome of some species has reached prices of US$ 200 per unit.
ASOCOLFLORES focuses on subtropical native species

On the reported lack of interest of the Colombian cut flower industry in producing heliconia, the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES) reacts that the production of tropical species does not fit into its activities. The main cut flower industry in Colombia is located in the mountainous regions with temperatures fluctuating between 5 and 200C. Combined with a high light intensity, these regions are appropriate for producing high-quality cut flowers of subtropical species. Tropical flowers such as heliconias have different requirements. Heliconias grow below the 1,500 m., cannot tolerate temperatures below 130C and are sensitive to mechanical damage. According to ASOCOLFLORES, transportation techniques would have to be evaluated, since subtropical flowers are shipped at temperatures just above freezing point. 

ASOCOLFLORES reports to be more interested in the ornamental potential of native plants of Colombia's Andean forest between 1,600 to 3,000 m. A year of research by two researchers of the Horticulture Research Centre (CIAA) of the University of Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano resulted in the collection of 50 cut flower, pot plant and garden plant species from the high Andean forest (2,500 to 3,000 m.). Of these species, 20 are considered to have potential for the Colombia flower industry. The research cost of US$ 4,000 was financed by the local NGO Environmental Protection Fund José Celestino Mutis (FEN). The same NGO has been approached to finance the US$ 8,000 research cost for the same research but at lower altitudes (1,600 to 2,500m.).
ASOCOLFLORES has not contributed to these studies, but has offered support for a commercial analysis of some species once available. CIAA also considers to make native plants a new topic in its ongoing research. 
Peter Commandeur

Source: Personal communication of Miguel Gómez Martínez, executive president of ASOCOLFLORES; Rebecca Lee, extension coordinator CIAA.

Intellectual property rights
Protection of the heliconia species could provide compensation for the research costs. However, expected revenues have to be balanced against the expected costs of seeking protection. The prospects of protecting the results of the research if new varieties or hybrids are developed are not very good. Recently, the University of Antioquia obtained two patents and thus now knows the high costs of the procedure. In particular, the costs of extending and monitoring the protection in other countries are high and have to be paid in foreign currency. Protection for heliconia species should be obtained in all main importing countries, since it will be in these countries that the protection will have its economic impact. The fact that Colombia is member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) eases the situation, since many of the potential importing countries of heliconia species are members of UPOV too, and uniform protection in these countries will be guaranteed.
Another aspect not tackled yet is the possible protection of heliconia species stemming from Colombia by scientists and traders in other countries. This could not only seriously restrict research activities on the domestication of heliconia, its production and export of heliconias, but also affect Colombian agricultural and biodiversity development as a whole.
Lucia Atehortua

Tissue Culture Laboratory, Departamento de Biología, Universidad de Antioquia, A.A. 1226, Medellín, Colombia. Fax (+574) 263 8282;
E-mail latehor@quimbaya.udea.edu.co

J. Kress (1984), "Systematics of Central American Heliconia (Heliconiaceae) with Pendent Inflorescences." J. Arnold Arbor, 65 (4), pp.429-532.

A.J. Rengifo (1994), "La Biodiversidad en el Derecho Internacional." Ecologica. Abril-diciembre, pp.42-46.

Universidad de Antioquia (1996), Estatuto de Propiedad Intelectual. Medellín, Colombia: Universidad de Antioquia.

J. van Wijk and W. Jaffé (eds.)(1996), Intellectual Property Rights and Agriculture in Developing Countries: Proceedings of a seminar on the impact of plant breeders rights in developing countries. Amsterdam: IICA & University of Amsterdam.

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