Genetic transformation of the Common Primrose (primula vulgaris) could inform researchers even more about one of the world’s most renowned reproductive systems.

The primrose has one of the best examples of heteromorphic flower development in the agricultural world. Heteromorphic flower development is a phenomenon where plants ‘exhibit two or three distinct forms of flowers based on the position of the male and female sex organs’.

For those of us who aren’t scientists, it means that the plant cannot mate with itself. It means that no seed formation takes place, so, unlike plants such as orchids and sunflowers, which self-fertilise, the primrose must look elsewhere to reproduce.

The current research is being conducted at the John Innes Centre at UEA and the Earlham Institute, and was published in the Plant Methods scientific journal. The research could mean implications for commercial crops, and the creation of hybrid plants – another form of genetic modification (GM).

In a 2016 UEA research paper Professor Philip Gilmartin’s team from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences identified the S-Locus supergene that controls heteromorphy. Thanks to the school’s research, scientists can now continue to learn about heteromorphy and its mysteries.

Prof Gilmartin said: ‘The development of a Primula transformation system is an important component of our lab’s long-term study to identify and characterise the genes that control development of the two forms of Primula flower studied by Charles Darwin.’

In 1862, Charles Darwin published a paper working out the functional significance of different anatomical formations, concluding, as aforementioned, that the plants were self-incompatible. Darwin observed that the primrose needs cross-pollination and this helps to maintain genetic variation. You may remember that Charles Darwin is famous for both his theories on evolution and natural selection. The heteromorphic flower developments in the primrose is one of the latter; it means that only the strongest plants will survive.

Co-author Mark Smedley of the John Innes Centre said: ‘It is not every day you get to work on a paper that references Darwin. This is a fundamental story that scientists have been trying to unravel for 200 years.’

Darwin, who died in 1882, would likely have been just as excited as the scientists today are. Towards the end of his life he once remarked: ‘I do not think anything in my scientific life has given me so much satisfaction as making out of the meaning of the structure of these plants.’

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