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Turning on Flower Power

January 1996

researcher and plants

Using Arabidopsis, biologists have discovered the "flower genes" in plants. When the genes are switched on, the plant blooms.

Credit: Stephen Webster

Plants begin to flower when one of two internal genetic switches is turned on, NSF-funded biologists have discovered. With this knowledge, the scientists are using genetic engineering to manipulate the blooming process.

Working independently, groups of scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California at San Diego demonstrated that when one of two genetic switches is flipped, the plant will stop adding to its stem or root system and concentrate all of its efforts, instead, on blossoms.

"We have virtually complete control over the onset of flowering," Martin Yanofsky, senior scientist of the UC San Diego team, told The Los Angeles Times.

Scientists used the two genetic switches, known as the Leafy and the Apetala1, on such diverse plants as the mustard family's Arabidopsis and tobacco and aspen trees.

In aspens the result was particularly dramatic. Aspens normally take 8 to 20 years and 30 feet of growth to flower. But the transformed seeds wasted little time on normal growth patterns, flowering when they were only six months old and two inches tall.

"We've transformed the aspens from trees into weeds," Detlef Weigel, leader of the Salk team, told The New York Times.

Weigel expects the discovery to encourage commercial tree breeders who are currently constrained by the long life cycle of trees.

In addition, the discovery could cut as much as 70 percent of the time needed to breed new seed varieties and could lead to genetically engineered crops that need less time to reach maturity.

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