Share this page:
Other services (opens in new window)
Sets a cookie

100 million year-old mistake provides snapshot of evolution

Visit  University of Leeds website

18 October 2010

Researchers have uncovered a snapshot of evolution in progress, showing that an ancient gene mutation led plants to make male and female parts of flowers in different ways. This event occurred over 100 million years ago and paved the way for flowering plants that produce the modern seeds and fruits that we eat. This discovery adds to the body of knowledge about plant evolution and genetics that will be important for future developments in food security research.

The findings - published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition - provide a perfect example of how diversity stems from such genetic 'mistakes'. The research also opens the door to further investigation into how plants make flowers - the origins of the seeds and fruits that we eat.

In a number of plants, the gene involved in making male and female organs has duplicated to create two, very similar, copies. In rockcress (Arabidopsis), one copy still makes male and female parts, but the other copy has taken on a completely new role: it makes seed pods shatter open. In snapdragons (Antirrhinum), both genes are still linked to sex organs, but one copy makes mainly female parts, while still retaining a small role in male organs - but the other copy can only make male.

"Snapdragons are on the cusp of splitting the job of making male and female organs between these two genes, a key moment in the evolutionary process," says lead researcher Professor of Plant Development, Brendan Davies, from Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences. "More genes with different roles gives an organism added complexity and opens the door to diversification and the creation of new species."

By tracing back through the evolutionary 'tree' for flowering plants, the researchers calculate the gene duplication took place around 120 million years ago. But the mutation which separates how snapdragons and rock cress use this extra gene happened around 20 million years later.

The researchers have discovered that the different behaviour of the gene in each plant is linked to one amino acid. Although the genes look very similar, the proteins they encode don't always have this amino acid. When it is present, the activity of the protein is limited to making only male parts. When the amino acid isn't there, the protein is able to interact with a range of other proteins involved in flower production, enabling it to make both male and female parts.

"A small mutation in the gene fools the plant's machinery to insert an extra amino acid and this tiny change has created a dramatic difference in how these plants control making their reproductive organs," says Professor Davies. "This is evolution in action, although we don't know yet whether this mutation will turn out to be a dead end and go no further or whether it might lead to further complexities.

"Our research is an excellent example of how a chance imperfection sparks evolutionary change. If we lived in a perfect world, it would be a much less interesting one, with no diversity and no chance for new species to develop."

The researchers now plan to study the protein interactions which enable the production of both male and female parts as part of further investigation into the genetic basis by which plants produce flowers.

The research was supported by funding from the European Union Marie Curie Research Training Program and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Professor Davies is available for interview.

Single amino acid change alters the ability to specify male or female organ identity Chiara A. Airoldi, Sara Bergonzi, and Brendan Davies. ( www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1009050107).

A copy of the paper is available on request. Alternatively, please contact PNAS News Office at 202-334-1310 or PNASnews@nas.edu.

About the Faculty of Biological Sciences

The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi :10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk.

About the University of Leeds

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. http://www.leeds.ac.uk.

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Jo Kelly, Campuspr

tel: 0113 258 9880
mob: 07980 267756

University of Leeds Press Office

tel: 0113 343 4031