Gene duplication is a major source of genomic novelty for evolution to work on. When genes duplicate, the extra copy of the gene is often redundant – it might degrade and become a pseudogene or take on a completely new function. Alternatively, the function of the original gene might become partitioned between the two duplicates in a process known as subfunctionalization. An excellent example of this has recently been reported in the genes that control male and female organ development in the flower, and it’s (almost) all down to a single amino acid change between the duplicate genes.
Development of male and female reproductive organs in flowers is controlled largely by a group of genes called MADS-box transcription factors. Different versions of these transcription factors (known as A, B or C function genes) are expressed in different parts of the developing flower, acting either alone or together to produce sepals, petals, stamens (male) or carpels (female)*.
Much of what we know about flower development comes from studies on two “model” plants – Arabidopsis (rockcress) and Antirrhinum (snapdragon). In these species, and in many other flowering plants, the MADs-box C-function gene that controls the production of carpels vs stamens has duplicated. In Arabidopsis, one of the copies (called AG) makes both male and female organs, but the other copy has taken on the completely new function of making seed pods shatter (and is appropriately called SHATTERPROOF). However, in Antirrhinum both copies still play a role in sex organ development: one copy (called FAR) makes only male parts, while the other copy (PLE) makes mainly female parts but also has a small role in making male parts.
Thus in Antirrhinum, the function of the original gene (making both male and female parts) has almost been split between the two duplicate copies. In a study published online in PNAS last week, researchers at the University of Leeds, led by Professor Brendan Davies, found a surprisingly simple difference in the two copies has led to their profoundly different roles. Read the rest of this entry »