Finding the key to Mendel's pea flowers

12 October 2010

Plant & Food Research scientists have helped discover the key to one of biology’s most well-known experiments – the gene that controls pea flower colour, used by Mendel in his initial studies of inheritance.

150 years ago Gregor Mendel planted peas segregating for flower colour. Now an international group of scientists, publishing in the journal PLoS-ONE, has revealed the underlying molecular genetics behind this experiment, identifying genes that control flower colour in pea plants.

“Mendel is known as the father of modern genetics, using pea characteristics to demonstrate inheritance patterns,” says Dr Roger Hellens, Science Leader of the Genomics Group at Plant & Food Research. 

The purple colour of wild type pea flowers, and flowers of many other plants, is a consequence of the accumulation of pigment molecules called anthocyanins and the biochemistry of their production has been studied for many years. The paper describes two pea genes, known as A and A2, that regulate the production of anthocyanins.

The work was a collaboration between scientists at Plant & Food Research, the John Innes Centre in the UK, URGV in France and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Services.

“This was a real collaborative effort, it would not have happened without all of these people participating, especially if Roger had not had the enthusiasm to nail a problem that has been bugging him for years,” says Professor Noel Ellis, of the Department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre. 

“By comparing the pea DNA sequences to those of other well-characterised plants, such as petunia, we have determined that Mendel’s gene is a transcription factor that controls the anthocyanin biosynthesis pathway. This transcription factor, when mutated, becomes inactive and anthocyanin is not produced, resulting in white flowers,” says Dr Hellens.

“We used information from our previous genotyping of the JIC pea germplasm collection to identify exotic lines where we would most likely find rare alleles of Mendel’s gene.  Finding a rare second allele was important for independent confirmation of the identity of the gene,” says Professor Ellis.  “This is the fourth of Mendel’s seven genes to be characterised at the molecular level: it is also the second where JIC has been involved.”

Funding was received from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the EU FP6 Grain Legumes Integrated Project, the New Zealand Foundation for Research Science and Technology and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Research Council.

The paper can be found at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013230.

A video explaining the research can be found at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEhtyXCdcTg

Contact:
Emma Timewell
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