Research Matters

Research Matters

Evolution of Flowers


The evolution of flowering plants is a puzzling research area that attracted Lena Hileman, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU. Hileman recently sought to discover how closely related plants – snapdragon and Plantago – could have developed vastly different flowers and pollination strategies.

Episode #87



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Transcript


A new investigation shows an entire group of genes vanishing in the evolution of flowers. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I'm Brendan Lynch.

The evolution of flowering plants is a puzzling research area that attracted Lena Hileman, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU. Hileman recently sought to discover how closely related plants – snapdragon and Plantago – could have developed vastly different flowers and pollination strategies.

"Plantago is a genus that has sort of popped out as closely related to snapdragon, and that's been very surprising because Plantago has – in term of what its flowers look like – they look nothing like a snapdragon flower, and they weren't considered to be closely related to Snapdragon. Because I'm interested in the underlying genes and genetic pathways that contribute to floral shape, so this was really striking to me."

By looking at these flowers on the molecular level, Hileman made the startling discovery that an entire set of genes needed to create bee-pollinated flowers like snapdragon at some point disappeared from wind-pollinated Plantago.

"This is a unique example where reduction of the petals in a transition from bee pollination to wind pollination has actually evolved though the complete loss of that genetic program – instead of having evolved though slight modification or tinkering with a genetic program, has actually evolved through the complete loss of that genetic program. Not only one gene, but we've identified three genes. We've found that this suite of genes has been lost entirely from Plantago."

What drove the evolutionary changes that from a common ancestor produced the plain, wind-pollinated Plantago and the showy, bee-pollinated snapdragon?

"Organisms adapt to their local environments and what resources they have available to them. If a lineage of plants finds itself in an environment where bee pollinators or any type of biotic pollinators are limited, then an alternative strategy, and under those conditions a better strategy, might be wind pollination."

For the University of Kansas, I'm Brendan Lynch.

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