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Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Could 'Godzilla cherry blossom' save Japanese culture?


Cherry blossom is as quintessentially Japanese as sushi and samurai.

News photo
Cheery: Revelers enjoy hanami (blossom-viewing) at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on April 3, 2009. A key feature of Japanese culture, the annual cherry-blossom season, which normally coincides with warm spring weather, has come under threat of late as the trees have been flowering earlier every year. Now, though, an unlikely group of scientists may have solved the problem. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

All three have one thing in common: their existence is transitory. They don't last very long before they fall to the ground, are eaten, or are cut down in battle.

Now a new kind of cherry blossom has something in common with another famously Japanese creation: Godzilla.

For foreigners it can be hard to grasp just quite how important a place the annual cherry-blossom season has in Japanese culture. Even after experiencing it for many years, I'm still a little taken aback at how it dominates not just conversation but also the news agenda.

Certainly that's partly a result of a huge marketing drive each year, as even convenience stores, for instance, promote sakura (cherry-blossom) drinks and snacks. But with its celebration of the transitory nature of beauty, it also offers an insight into the Japanese national psyche.

This phenomenon is under threat. For the last few years the arrival of the sakura has been getting earlier and earlier. Last year the "blossom front" (constantly reported on television weather programs) reached Tokyo five days ahead of schedule at the start of April — the fourth year in a row that it has been early.

As you might imagine, the threat this poses to the nationally beloved hanami (blossom-viewing) parties is not to be taken lightly. The Japan Meteorological Society (JMA) acknowledges that global warming might be causing the early blooming, but says more study is needed. This could be seen as excessively cautious, but there could be other explanations. For example, an increasingly urbanized society — with more air-conditioning units and cars heating the cities — could be behind the trend.

While the JMA takes its time investigating, a team of scientists have taken matters into their own hands. The threat to sakura is too serious, whatever the cause. Hence researchers at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerated- Based Science in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, have created a variety of cherry tree that blooms in all four seasons.

The RIKEN scientists aren't plant biologists: They are physicists and engineers who operate the Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory. By bombarding branches of cherry trees with carbon ions generated by the RIKEN Ring Cyclotron — a type of particle accelerator — they induced mutations that change the factors affecting flowering. The kind of tree used was a variety known as Keiou-Zakura No. 13. The mutant form was grafted and cultivated and produced a new variety, which has been named Nishina Otome.

It's a shame the scientists didn't call it Nishina Godzilla, because, like the fictional giant monster, its power springs from mutations caused by atomic radiation.

Nishina Otome blooms for longer, produces more flowers and grows under a wider range of temperatures than existing cherry-blossom trees. It might just preserve the Japanese tradition, if global warming continues as most scientists fear.

Unlike normal cherry-blossom trees, the Nishina Otome does not require a period of cold winter weather to trigger growth in the spring. This means that under indoor conditions the new tree is able to bloom in all four seasons. Even grown outside it will bloom in both fall and spring. If temperatures are low for long enough over the winter, Nishina Otome produces three times more flowers than normal trees, and when it flowers in April it stays in bloom for twice as long.

Not quite the supernatural powers of Godzilla then, but perhaps enough to cope with a fast-changing environment.

For a few years, RIKEN scientists have been experimenting with using particle-accelerator technology in horticulture. In most other parts of the world, particle accelerators are used to investigate the elementary structure of atoms — most spectacularly at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. But this use of ion beams in Japan is drawing attention because it enables new types of plants to be created without the use of direct genetic-modification techniques.

The creation of Nishina Otome should be hailed as a success, and a testament to the ingenuity of the scientists exploring a new kind of horticulture. I can't help feeling a tinge of worry about it, however. It's quite clear that human activities are behind the global increases in temperature. If you want another horticultural example, U.S. biologists have found that cherry trees all along the country's east coast are blooming up to a week earlier than they did in the 1970s — and they, too, blamed global warming.

If we are frightened by this, there are two responses. First, we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and attempt to slow the warming. This is known as mitigating the effects. Second, we can plan for adapting to the effects of inevitable increases in temperature. This could include breeding new varieties of plants and animals — such as Nishina Otome — that can tolerate a warmer climate.

Some people, and this was the view of former U.S. President George W. Bush, seem to think we can rely on the second option to get us out of trouble. Sure, we are an ingenious and technically marvelous species. But relying on adaptation is as dangerous as relying on Godzilla to save us — he might help protect the world, but he might bring destruction. We must both try to prevent greenhouse warming, and work to minimize its effects.

Follow Rowan Hooper on Twitter at twitter.com/rowanns. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human)."


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