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Tracing floral adaptations from ecology to molecules

Author(s): Clegg MT, Durbin ML


The study of floral evolution provides a simple system to investigate the link between environmental adaptation, phenotypic determination and genetic change.

The methods of molecular genetics offer powerful comparative tools for unravelling the evolution of floral adaptations.

Flower colour is a simple phenotype with well-characterized pathways of biochemical and molecular determination, which greatly facilitates comparative analysis.

The morning glory genus Ipomoea is well suited to comparative molecular research on floral evolution owing to the great range of floral phenotypes that have arisen in the genus in the past 30 million years.

Differences in floral colour among Ipomoea species seem to be largely the result of shifts in gene expression rather than the result of changes in enzymatic genes.

Over longer periods of evolutionary time (≥50 million years) gene duplication has been the source of important new innovations in the flavonoid biosynthesis.

Transposons are an important source of allelic diversity in flavonoid genes in Ipomoea species.

Ecological research with Ipomoea provides a direct link between phenotypic selection and the environment by showing that bumblebee pollinators discriminate between pigmented and white floral morphs, leading to asymmetries in genetic transmission that should favour white genes when they are expressed at low frequency.

The study of floral adaptation at all levels of biological organization requires mixing historical inference with direct experimentation.

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