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Looking at the genes behind Darwin’s abominable mystery

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Darwin was bothered by what he perceived to be an abrupt origin and highly accelerated rate of diversification of flowering plants. Recent advances in molecular biology provide us with new tools to look at this ‘abominable mystery’.

First, I will present some of the results obtained during my PhD, focusing on LEAFY (LFY), a unique plant transcription factor. LFY is a central regulator of floral development also present in non-flowering plants. Consequently a change in its properties has often been invoked to explain the origin of flowers, but experimental evidence has been lacking. I set up a SELEX experiment coupled with Illumina sequencing to exhaustively characterize its DNA binding specificity. This experiment led to a biophysical model that I validated in vitro and in vivo (ChIP-seq). This demonstrates the usefulness of such an approach to predict target genes of a given transcription factor. Then, I tested if LFY DNA binding specificity is different in non-flowering plants and established that a pre-floral network was already functioning in gymnosperms, the sister-group of flowering plants.

To conclude my talk, I will briefly present my current research project. The interaction between flowers and pollinators has probably contributed to the rapid diversification of angiosperms. Plants, like animals, can produce vivid colour using nanostructures on their surface instead of using pigments. Iridescence is an example of a structural colour effect that bumblebees can use as a clue to detect flowers. As nothing is known about the development of such structures, I am investigating the genetic basis of photonic nanostructures in nature, using Hibiscus as a new model species.

This talk is part of the Plant Sciences Research Seminars series.

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