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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Jun 20;97(13):7016-23.

Flower color variation: a model for the experimental study of evolution.

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  • 1Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0124, USA.


We review the study of flower color polymorphisms in the morning glory as a model for the analysis of adaptation. The pathway involved in the determination of flower color phenotype is traced from the molecular and genetic levels to the phenotypic level. Many of the genes that determine the enzymatic components of flavonoid biosynthesis are redundant, but, despite this complexity, it is possible to associate discrete floral phenotypes with individual genes. An important finding is that almost all of the mutations that determine phenotypic differences are the result of transposon insertions. Thus, the flower color diversity seized on by early human domesticators of this plant is a consequence of the rich variety of mobile elements that reside in the morning glory genome. We then consider a long history of research aimed at uncovering the ecological fate of these various flower phenotypes in the southeastern U.S. A large body of work has shown that insect pollinators discriminate against white phenotypes when white flowers are rare in populations. Because the plant is self-compatible, pollinator bias causes an increase in self-fertilization in white maternal plants, which should lead to an increase in the frequency of white genes, according to modifier gene theory. Studies of geographical distributions indicate other, as yet undiscovered, disadvantages associated with the white phenotype. The ultimate goal of connecting ecology to molecular genetics through the medium of phenotype is yet to be attained, but this approach may represent a model for analyzing the translation between these two levels of biological organization.

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