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A Penn biology research team discovered specific genes that may need to be suppressed in order for flowers to bloom.

Credit: Joy Lee

Penn Biology professor Doris Wagner led a research team that identified specific genes which might need to be stifled, or “shut off,” to make flowers bloom. This research could have important implications for improving agriculture yields in the future.

The group targeted flower formation because of its essential role in reproduction and yield of agricultural plants, Penn Today reported. A 2016 research study shows that the manipulation of development traits, such as "flowering time," has potential to lead to an increase in crop yield

The team conducted research by creating mutant plants which lacked normal levels of three distinct genes. The researchers found that these mutant plants developed in an odd triangle shape without growing organs — flowers, leaves, or branches.

The mutated plant instead grew a large meristem, a region where stem cells are stored, Wagner told Penn Today. This growth suggests that stem cell fate, or the ability for cells to differentiate into other types of cells, needs to be shut off before organs can form, Wagner added.

The researchers also found that lowering the levels of the three genes resulted in higher activity of SHOOTMERISTEMLESS — a gene which maintains a pool of stem cells. Wagner and her team concluded that the three genes play an important role in flower formation because they block STM activity.

“What this was saying to us is that, when STM is present in this region, it prevents plants from making an organ,” Wagner told Penn Today. 

When the researchers enhanced levels of STM, the plants produced stems without flowers, showing that by blocking STM, flowers are able to bloom. Wagner said further research is still needed to uncover more details about how exactly these three genes block STM activity and lead to flower growth.

Wagner’s team involved researchers from Norwich Research Park in the United Kingdom and el Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico. The scientific study was funded in part by Penn's University Research Foundation Grant and the National Science Foundation.