7 Arabidopsis - How to Make a Flower
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Arabidopsis: Map Makers of the Plant Kingdom

How to Make a Flower

Elliot M. Meyerowitz of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena was one of the first molecular biologists to receive an NSF grant to study Arabidopsis genetics. His work on the development of flowers illustrates how the methods of scientific inquiry employed in molecular biology can unlock the secrets of plant life.

Flowers are made up of four concentric whorls. Surrounded by tough, protective structures called sepals, the petals themselves surround the male and female sex organs, respectivly called stamens and carpels. Three types of genes control how the whorls develop, and by looking at flowers that lacked some genes, Meyerowitz's lab discovered that if only type A genes are active, a cell knows to become part of a sepal. With A and B genes switched on, the cell turns into part of a petal. Together, genes B and C direct a cell into a stamen, and C alone, into a carpel.

Meyerowitz's work has broad applicability. Fully 80 percent of the world's food supply is made up of flowers or flower parts: fruit, grains, or seeds. While genetically engineered flowers may have limited commercial value, the same formulas may one day be used to tailor food crops to the requirements of humankind.

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