The AOS established a Research Committee in 1951 to assist and stimulate research on orchids. Since then nearly 200 grants and fellowships totaling more than $1.1 million have been provided to worthy students. The Society has supported research to study a wide range of subjects. Topics range from practical to highly fundamental. AOS funding of orchid research has been provided to scientists throughout the world.

In 1990, the Society expanded its grant-giving initiatives by beginning a new program to sponsor the education of doctoral students. In this program, students compete for a Fellowship that provides funds that the student may use for research support, salary or tuition. The Fellowship is provided for three years, pending satisfactory progress toward the PhD degree.  Recognizing that many worthwhile research projects do not fit the scope of PhD programs, the Society added a Masters Degree scholarship to its research funding mix. The scholarship, much like that of the PhD Fellowship, is for two years pending satisfactory progress.

The Society’s commitment to orchid research has been international in scope. Funding has been provided to scientists working and studying in 31 states in the USA, and to institutions in 11 other countries — Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Israel, Malaya, New Guinea, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Russia and the United Kingdom.

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).

In 1993, Mr. Ronald Porat, a doctoral student in Dr. Abraham Halevy’s laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was funded to determine the Signal Transduction of Processes Involved in Pollination-induced Senescence Syndrome of Phalaenopsis Flowers. This research will use Ms. Nadeau’s data to determine the exact molecule that signals the start of wilting. He determined that the onset of wilting is the result of an increase in the sensitivity of the flower to ethylene instead of an increase in its synthesis (Porat, 1994. Lindleyana 9:85-92).

In 1997, Drs. Halevy and O’Neill received $240,000 in funding from the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD) to continue their collaboration for another three years.

Because of all of these AOS-funded projects, orchids became an important research subject in plant senescence studies. Many scientists throughout the world are now studying senescence in orchids. For example, Drs. Yi-Yin Do, Yi-Chiann Chen and Pung-Ling Huang at the National Taiwan University in Taipei have now isolated the gene response for recognizing ethylene (Do, Chen & Huang, 1999. Plant Physiology 119:1567).

Without a fundamental knowledge of the genetic and biochemical mechanisms involved in senescence, it is impossible to determine how to regulate the process and control flower wilting. The direct practical outcome will be the ability to produce orchid flowers that last significantly longer. Another important benefit of this research is that orchids are now recognized as being an important model system for studying flower senescence..

It should now be clear that before a practical research project can be initiated, a strong foundation of basic knowledge is required. The American Orchid Society and the research community need your support to continue to fund beneficial orchid research. Approximately half of the monies that the AOS uses to support research come from member contributions; the other half are funded by the income generated on the Society’s permanent endowment funds. Additional resources are needed to expand the reach and impact of this important research. The AOS will continue to seek new support from the corporate and foundation community, but the nonprofit organization needs challenge support from orchid enthusiasts to leverage in securing this new support. Any financial assistance the AOS receives will aid in finding matching support from other sources.

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