The plant kingdom is many things – the basis of agriculture and civilization, a natural laboratory with a stupefying capability in organic synthesis, a source of untold numbers of pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, herbals, and other chemical playthings, a fascinating range of biological form and function, and an eminently accessible subject for studies of evolution. Along the lines of the last two bullets, one of the more interesting aspects of plants is the range of growth habits that may be adopted. Among these are two sets of contrasting characteristics – annual or perennial, and herbaceous or woody. Differences in these characteristics are among the bases for classification of plant species. For this reason, but also because accompanying morphological differences can be quite considerable, evolutionary changes that involve transitioning between these states are macroevolutionary. Thus, it stands to reason that studying the means by these characteristics evolve amounts to experimental analysis of macroevolution, and understanding the underlying mechanisms constitutes an explanation of macroevolutionary processes.
It is in this light that a recent report deserves some attention. This report, by Melzer et al., describes studies of the functioning of two regulators of flowering in the herbaceous annual Arabidopsis thaliana. These proteins, called SOC1 and FUL, had been known for some time to be involved in the regulation of flowering. Melzer et al. constructed double mutants deficient in the expression of these two proteins, with the intent of understanding the physiological significance of interactions between these two proteins, associations discovered using the so-called yeast two-hybrid assay. Amazingly, soc1 ful double mutants were dramatically different – they had a more woody growth habit, and they behaved like perennials when it comes to reproduction. The abstract from the paper follows this paragraph. The bottom line that is in keeping with the title of the essay – not only can this particular macroevolutionary process be studied experimentally, it can be understood and the corresponding macroevolutionary process recapitulated in a controlled setting.
Plants have evolved annual and perennial life forms as alternative strategies to adapt reproduction and survival to environmental constraints. In isolated situations, such as islands, woody perennials have evolved repeatedly from annual ancestors1. Although the molecular basis of the rapid evolution of insular woodiness is unknown, the molecular difference between perennials and annuals might be rather small, and a change between these life strategies might not require major genetic innovations2, 3. Developmental regulators can strongly affect evolutionary variation4 and genes involved in meristem transitions are good candidates for a switch in growth habit. We found that the MADS box proteins SUPPRESSOR OF OVEREXPRESSION OF CONSTANS 1 (SOC1) and FRUITFULL (FUL) not only control flowering time, but also affect determinacy of all meristems. In addition, downregulation of both proteins established phenotypes common to the lifestyle of perennial plants, suggesting their involvement in the prevention of secondary growth and longevity in annual life forms.
Melzer S, Lens F, Gennen J, Vanneste S, Rohde A, Beeckman T. 2008. Flowering-time genes modulate meristem determinacy and growth form in Arabidopsis thaliana. Nature Genetics, published online: 9 November 2008 | doi:10.1038/ng.253