Biologists unlock 51.7 million year old genetic secret to Charles Darwin’s theory

Primula allionii. Wikimedia.

December 6, 2016: A 51.7 million-year-old genetic secret to Charles Darwin’s theory proposed more than 150 years ago has been unlocked by scientists. The genes responsible for the reproductive traits in the Primula flower have been recognized by researchers.

Darwin suggested that certain plant species having two distinct forms of flowers, with the male and female reproductive parts of different lengths evolved in a way to perform out-crossing by insect pollinators.

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Darwin’s pioneering insight into the importance of the forms of flower called ‘pins’ and ‘thrums’ conceived the term ‘heterostyly’ and succeeding research added up to formulate the modern genetic theory.

The particular part of the species’ genetic code which defined them was identified by scientists at University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. It was the result of an event which occurred more than 51 million years ago.

According to PTI, Professor Philip Gilmartin from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said, “To identify the genes which control the biology noted by Darwin is an exciting moment. Many studies have been done over the past decades to explore the genetic basis of this phenomenon but now we have pinpointed the supergene directly responsible, the S locus”.

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Congregations of closely linked genes inherited as a unit together and allow the control of complex microbiology are called supergenes. The researchers worked in association with Earlham Institute in the UK to plot the Primula’s genes and sequence its genome to find the gene cluster responsible for the different flower morphs.

Gilmartin tells, “Understanding of the genetics which underpin flower development and reproduction of a species broadens our knowledge about the entire system of pollination, which underpins biodiversity and food security”.

He also said that with challenges like climatic changes and its effects on plant life and their insect pollinators, it is imperative for us to understand the mechanisms for pollination and how the species react.

Amidst the search for the controlling gene responsible for heterostyly, the researchers dated the initial mutation to 51.7 million years ago.

On finding the S locus, the researchers realized that the gene was a close relative to another one identified six years ago which is responsible for controlling the petals’ identity on a Primula flower.

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At some point, the duplication of the gene occurred and the gene entered itself in the S locus and mutated to take control over the positioning of the anther in the flower. The Nature Plants journal published the study.

-prepared by Shivam Thaker of NewsGram with PTI inputs. Twitter:@Shivam_Thaker.