Over a century after Charles Darwin referred to the origin and diversification of the flowering plants (angiosperms) as an "abominable mystery," answers to this dilemma are finally attainable. Modern developmental biology and genomics provide important clues: many of the genes controlling flower development have been identified and, importantly, gene duplication is often associated with diversification. This project will elucidate how the genes underlying floral development assume different roles driving the remarkable diversification of land plants. Thus, the project will advance the field of evolution of development ("evo-devo"). The project also will inform efforts to modify floral structure to benefit humanity; as the precursors of seeds, fruits and pollen, flowers are the foundation of the entire human food supply.
The plant group used in this study, Thalictrum (Ranunculaceae), has a diverse and uniquely useful combination of features: unisexual and bisexual flowers, insect and wind pollination. Thalictrum is, therefore, an excellent laboratory to determine the basis for transitions in breeding and pollination system. The project will take advantage of cultivars with modified floral patterns and experimental gene disruption to inform a model of floral organ specification after gene duplication. A second aim is to recapitulate transitions from hermaphrodite to female flowers, and from showy insect-pollinated to inconspicuous wind-pollinated flowers.
The project will engage undergraduate researchers through the university-sponsored programs including Genomics Outreach for Minorities (GenOM-ALVA), NASA-SURP and HHMI Integrative Research Internships. Activities will include participation in presentations at scientific meetings and peer-reviewed publications. Outreach activities include participation in National Laboratory Day, Native Plant Society talks and a website for data-sharing.