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Petal-Power Gene Yields Unique Blossoms

By Marcia Wood
May 13, 2003

Flowers of the future may produce beautiful blooms that boast more petals than usual. That's thanks to investigations at the Plant Gene Expression Center at Albany, Calif., where scientists have discovered the petal-producing prowess of a gene called Ultrapetala. Agricultural Research Service plant molecular biologist Jennifer C. Fletcher leads the Ultrapetala work at the center, which is operated jointly by ARS and the University of California at Berkeley.

Fletcher's Ultrapetala studies have yielded new clues not only about how plants form blossoms, but also about how they develop new shoots and other structures. All of these plant parts originate from what are known as meristematic cells. These young cells grow rapidly, divide quickly and eventually specialize, or differentiate, to create flowers, leaves or stems.

The research suggests that Ultrapetala and some of the genes with which it interacts are key players in the architecture of green plants.

For her experiments, Fletcher used thale cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana. This plant, a relative of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, has become the "lab rat" of plant molecular biology. That's because A. thaliana has less genetic material than most other plants. This relatively small genome makes it somewhat easier for scientists to decipher the structure and function of each A. thaliana gene. In turn, other scientists worldwide can use those discoveries in their own studies of the genetic makeup of other green plants.

In addition, A. thaliana is easy to grow in research greenhouses, using familiar nursery flats. It develops quickly from seed to a fully mature, 8- to 16-inch-high plant in a mere four to six weeks.

Fletcher has produced and investigated unique A. thaliana plants that have as many as 10 creamy white petals instead of the usual four. Details are in the May issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.