Solving the mystery of primrose flowers
Researchers have finally identified one of the genes responsible for producing different types of flowers in primroses.
Flowers are highly specialized structures that many plants use to reproduce. Male organs called stamens on the flowers make pollen that can be transferred — usually by insect carriers or the wind — to a female structure called the stigma on another plant. However, since many flowers contain both male and female organs, it is also possible for the pollen to land on the stigma of the same flower, leading to a process called “self-fertilization”.
Many plants have developed mechanisms that prevent self-fertilization. For example, primroses produce two different types of flowers that arrange their stamens and stigmas differently. The stigma sits on the top of a stalk known as the style. Some primroses produce flowers with short stamens and a long style, resulting in the stigma being located high up in the flower (“pin” flowers), while others produce flowers with a short style and long stamens (“thrum” flowers). Primrose pollen is carried by insects and the different lengths of the styles and stamens make it more likely that pollen from a pin flower will land on the stigma of a thrum flower instead of a pin flower (and vice versa).
Although primrose flowers have fascinated botanists for centuries, the genes responsible for making the two types of flower had not been identified. Genetic studies indicated that different genes control the length of the stamens and style. However, these genes appear to be very close to each other on primrose DNA, which made it difficult to study them individually.
Cuong Nguyen Huu and colleagues identified a gene called CYP734A50 that is responsible for the difference in style length in the flowers of a primrose called Primula veris. The gene is only present in the plants that have thrum flowers across a wide range of primrose species and genetic mutations that inactivate the gene in these plants result in flowers with longer styles. CYP734A50 encodes an enzyme that breaks down plant hormones called brassinosteroids, which normally promote growth. Treating thrum flowers with brassinosteroids increased the length of the styles. Future challenges are to identify the other genes that are responsible for producing pin and thrum flowers and to understand how this group of genes evolved.
To find out more
Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Presence versus absence of CYP734A50 underlies the style-length dimorphism in primroses” (September 6, 2016).
Read a commentary on this research paper: “Plant reproduction: Long story short”.