The Cyanella alba, commonly known as five fingers or yellow lady’s hands, forms part of the research. Photo: Professor Illing
The Cyanella alba, commonly known as five fingers or yellow lady’s hands, forms part of the research. Photo: Professor Illing

UCT scientists scoop prestigious research grant to explore plant symmetry

By Robin-Lee Francke Time of article published May 14, 2021

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Cape Town - A research team of international scientists, including a University of Cape Town (UCT) professor, have been awarded a prestigious research grant from the International Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Organization.

The organisation funds international teams of scientists who wish to combine their expertise in innovative approaches to address questions related to complex mechanisms of living organisms.

Professor Nicola Illing from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology said in 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, namely Wachendorfia paniculata (commonly known as red root) and Cyanella alba (commonly known as five fingers or yellow lady’s hands), and compare it to Heteranthera multiflora, which is found across the Americas.

According to UCT, the aim of this team will be to successfully link structural determinants of left-right asymmetry in flowers to ecology and evolution.

The university said the project emerged after Professor Illing and Professor Michael Lenhard explored areas of potential collaboration while Illing was on a sabbatical in Potsdam in 2019.

The other team members on this research project include Dr Eva Deinum from the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Methods of Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, and Professor Spencer Barrett from University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Canada.

Illing said body plans of most animals and plants are symmetrical.

She said the molecular and genetic mechanisms by which this symmetry is broken, for example, the placing of internal organs in the human body, or the asymmetrical placing of reproductive organs in flowers has long fascinated biologists.

Illing said in plants showing a left-right floral asymmetry, two forms of flowers are found. In one, the female style is bent to the left and in the other to the right, and in many cases the pollen-producing anthers are on the opposite side.

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

“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,” Illing said.

At UCT, Illing will be collaborating with Associate Professor Robert Ingle of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Professor Dirk Lang from the Department of Human Biology in order to pinpoint the genes involved in floral asymmetry and characterising the development sequence of floral development and the point at which the symmetry is first broken.

Professor Bruce Anderson from Stellenbosch University’s Biological Sciences department will also be contributing his ecological expertise in studying the movement of pollen by insects.

African News Agency (ANA)

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