UCT scientists win grant to study genetics of floral asymmetry

11th May 2021 By: Thabi Madiba - Creamer Media Senior Research Assistant and Reporter

UCT scientists win grant to study genetics of floral asymmetry

University of Cape Town (UCT) scientists will collaborate to pinpoint the genes involved in floral asymmetry in South African plants and to characterise the developmental sequence of floral development.

This follows the winning of a prestigious research grant from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organisation awarded to UCT Department of Molecular and Cell Biology's Professor Nicola Illing and a research team of international scientists.

At UCT, Illing will collaborate with Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Associate Professor Robert Ingle and Department of Human Biology Professor Dirk Lang.

“Within the next three years, the research team will investigate the genetics of how symmetry is broken in mirror-image flowers of two endemic South African plants, Wachendorfia paniculata and Cyanella alba and compare this to Heteranthera multiflora, found across the Americas,” said Illing.

Stellenbosch University Department of Biological Sciences' Professor Bruce Andersen will also be contributing ecological expertise in the field studying the movement of pollen by insects.

The project emerged after Illing and Professor Michael Lenhard spent time exploring areas of potential collaboration while Illing was on sabbatical in Potsdam in 2019.

Other team members include Dr Eva Deinum of the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Methods of Wageningen University and Research, in the Netherlands and Professor Spencer Barrett of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto.

Illing and her colleagues are interested in cases where an individual has only left- or only right-handed flowers, respectively.

They know that the direction of style bending is genetically determined as half the population of plants bare only left-handed flowers and the other half right-handed flowers. 

“The big question we want to answer is how a difference in DNA leads to a reproducible directional decision by floral organs during development. Moreover, the example of mirror-symmetric flowers provides an opportunity to link the molecular control of left-right asymmetry to direct ecological consequences. In particular, this is thought to be an adaptation that promotes efficient outbreeding between individuals of a species,” added Illing.