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Yaowu Yuan on monkeyflowers, a weed that may hold the key to biological mysteries

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 14:00

Original article by Elizabeth Pennisi on Science Magazine.
Photo by Dena Grossenbacher

Yaowu Yuan's passion for monkeyflowers began in 2004 with a slideshow. Then a budding plant taxonomist at the University of Washington in Seattle and an avid hiker, he was amazed at the variety of wildflowers he saw on his outings in the Cascade mountains. Like Charles Darwin, he was vexed by what Darwin called an abominable mystery: How did nature generate such a diversity of flower colors and forms? During a campus seminar, Yuan encountered a plant that he thought might yield answers. University of Washington plant molecular biologist H. D. "Toby" Bradshaw and his graduate student showed slides documenting as much floral diversity within a single monkeyflower species as Yuan had seen in the meadows and streambanks of the Cascades—all generated by mutating the genome of this one Mimulus species.

The revelation changed the course of Yuan's research because he realized such mutants could lead to a better understanding of flower development in all plants. Since starting a faculty job at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs 6 years ago, he has been tracking down genes that control color, shape, size, and other traits in Mimulus flowers—and that may have similar effects in other plants. And he is far from the only scientist to have fallen under the spell of a plant best known as a weed that thrives where few plants, even other weeds, can grow—around abandoned copper mines and hot springs and in other inhospitable, mineral-laden soil.

Like plant scientists' traditional lab workhorse, the mustard weed Arabidopsis thaliana, monkeyflowers grow fast, produce a lot of seeds, and have a simple genome—appealing traits for lab studies. But their explosion of flower colors and forms, diverse lifestyles, and extraordinary hardiness—dramatic contrasts to the unassuming Arabidopsis—have seduced researchers studying plant evolution and adaptations. "You can use Mimulus to study traits that don't even exist in Arabidopsis," Yuan says.

Read the full article by Elizabeth Pennisi on Science Magazine.

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