RALEIGH, N.C. -- Poinsettias -- white or red, mottled or green -- are the cheerful plant favored as the harbinger of wintertime holidays.



Every year growers race to develop them in new colors, breeding bigger or different plant forms, greater disease resistance or longevity. During the past few years, purveyors of the florid flora have even pushed the color envelope with artificially painted, glittered and variously tinted offerings to broaden sales and boost earnings.



But with six million poinsettia plants sold wholesale for $18 million last year alone by North Carolina growers -- second only to California -- Euphorbia pulcherrima is just another name for a cash crop worth stealing.



More than 175 patented poinsettia cultivars have been named by various breeders and registered under the Plant Protection Act -- and sometimes new or unusual ones are illegally reproduced and sold.



Where there's ill will, however, there's often a way to stop it.



Two pathologists at North Carolina State University have found a way to trick the trade in purloined poinsettias.



Like CSI investigators in a holiday television special, the NCSU researchers have uncovered molecular markers that are like poinsettias' genetic fingerprints. The technology provides a genetic trail that can catch a posie pirate red-handed.



Though the findings have been intriguing, and may open some new lines of research, the economics of poinsettia patent protection aren't likely to allow widespread use of the technology, according to the researchers, Elizabeth Parks and James Moyer.



Parks, research analyst in the NCSU Department of Plant Pathology, and Moyer, professor and head of that department, have published their poinsettia findings in the Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science.



The problem is they found that the best way to identify the family history of plants such as poinsettias uses a process called amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP). And the AFLP technology is owned by a Dutch firm, Keygene, a service provider in the genetic analysis of plants, animals and micro-organisms.



"Keygene is very cooperative on a scientific basis," said Moyer. The firm has research collaborations with university scientists in many nations. "But they retain fairly tight control over commercial applications of AFLP. And even though poinsettia growing is big business, there are only a few cultivars that would be considered leaders at any given time, worthy of AFLP analysis for suspected patent infringement."



The NCSU scientists said the primary value of their work has been to demonstrate the proof-of-concept: fingering the ideal poinsettia genetic fingerprint, if and when it's needed. So far it doesn't look like a candidate for a for-profit spinoff venture, they say.



"This was a 'funzie' for us, a kind of side project," said Moyer.



The core of his research program is molecular genetics and the evolution of plant viruses. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center supported that aspect of Moyer's research in 1999 with a $40,000 grant for his study of tomato viruses. But typical of research programs garnering the Biotechnology Center's grant funding, Moyer's NCSU lab routinely has several lines of inquiry going simultaneously.



So even if poinsettia printing never becomes a blockbuster patent-protection pursuit, the NCSU scientists have contributed some understanding of America's most popular potted plant that rings up more than 60 million sales each holiday season worth $270 million.



The Biotechnology Center is a private, non-profit corporation supported by the N.C. General Assembly. Its mission is to provide long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina by supporting biotechnology research, business and education statewide.



SOURCE North Carolina Biotechnology Center via PR Newswire.