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Frankenstein-Flower Sheds Light on Evolution of Perfection.

Update Date: Sep 05, 2012 11:08 AM EDT

Like more white meat on your chicken? What about super- lean pork or a cow that produces 50% more milk than your average Holstein? These miracles of modern science are products of genetic manipulation. The creation of mutants is not limited to the animal kingdom. Man's manipulation of genes began with flora. Hours spent by trained researchers and hot house owners alike to develop new strains of flowers or next year's prize winning orchid.

The blossoms of flowers such as the Doubled Strawberry Vanilla lily and nearly all roses are varieties cultivated for their double flowers. These and other such plants are lush with extra petals in place of the parts of the flower needed for sexual reproduction and seed production: meaning double flowers - though beautiful - are mutants and usually sterile.

The genetic interruption that causes that mutation helped scientists in the 1990s pinpoint the genes responsible for normal development of sexual organs, stamens and carpels in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, long used as a plant model by biologists.

"It's pretty amazing that Arabidopsis and Thalictrum, the plant we studied, have genes that do the exact same kind of things in spite of the millions of years of evolution that separates the two species," said Verónica Di Stilio, University of Washington associate professor of biology. She is the corresponding author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Identifying the genetic and biochemical basis of double flowering in Thalictrum suggests the class of genes that likely underlie other widespread double-flower varieties, according to Kelsey Galimba, a UW doctoral student in the Di Stilio lab and lead author of the paper.

"Growers might be interested that we've figured out what's going on genetically. In terms of applications, you could potentially trigger this if you were interested in creating double flowers because you know which gene to treat to get that flower form," Di Stilio said.

"The flower is one of the key innovations of flowering plants. It allowed flowering plants to coevolve with pollinators - mainly insects, but other animals as well - and use those pollinators for reproduction," Di Stilio said. "Many scientists are interested in finding the genetic underpinnings of flower diversification. Just how flowering plants become so species rich in such a relatively short period of geologic time has been a question since Darwin."

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