I was delighted, once again, to join in the Royal Society of Biology’s Biology week celebrations, including the Parliamentary reception and #IAmABiologist Twitter campaign. In whatever way you identify as a biologist, I hope you joined in with the latter and I wonder what your motivation has been for pursuing biology – mine was a fascination with understanding how living organisms ‘worked’.

Biology Week offers a fantastic opportunity to recognise the breadth of biology and its impacts, and the reception in Parliament was a great way to ensure that our Politicians have an understanding and awareness of this too.

This year the Royal Society of Biology teamed up with the Royal Horticultural Society to ask the nation to vote for their favourite flower. This led me to reflect on how the study of flowers and flowering has contributed to our understanding of some of the most fundamental of biological processes. Often cited as the first description of RNA interference were studies led by Richard Jorgensen at The University of Arizona. He and his team wanted to create deep purple forms of Petunia hybrida and the approach they took was to express extra copies of Chalcone Synthase, the gene controlling pigment expression in these Petunia. However, their results were quite unexpected – instead of generating deep purple flowers many were pure white, while others were a mixture of white and purple! Molecular analyses showed that in white flowers both the introduced transgene, as well as the endogenous gene, were switched off 1. It was not until a number of years later that the underpinning mechanism was dissected – with UK researcher David Baulcombe making a series of key discoveries. We now understand that the introduced Chalcone Synthase gene had generated RNAs that interfered with protein translation, in turn meaning no pigment was produced – somewhat turning the central dogma of ‘DNA makes RNA makes protein’ that I learnt as an undergraduate on its head.

Of course flowers are important for many reasons including attracting and supporting the pollinators that play such a vital role in world-wide food production. I have found the interdisciplinary research that Beverly Glover and her team carry out into the traits of flowers that are important for attracting pollinators a fascinating example of frontier bioscience with real world importance. So too are the studies carried out by Caroline Dean’s team at JIC. Their research has focussed on understanding the Flowering Locus C in Arabidopsis and revealed new insights into the mechanisms that underpin the need for plants to be exposed to cold temperatures before they are able to flower (interfering RNAs are a key component in this regulation too). This understanding has been translated into sprouting broccoli, where removing the requirement for a period of cold opens the way for year-round cropping. Meanwhile, I can take a good guess at what the favourite flower of Philip Gilmartin’s team would be, given their work on understanding the mechanisms regulating floral heteromorphy in Primula vulgaris, the common primrose.

Such examples showcase the richness and wonder of flower biology!

1 Napoli C, Lemieux C, Jorgensen R (1990) Introduction of a chimeric chalcone synthase gene into petunia results in reversible co-suppression of homologous genes in trans. Plant Cell 2: 279–289.

Lumiago on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Copyright: Lumiago on Flickr by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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