Professor, students publish paper on adaptive integration in flowers

Flowers in front of the PSUWhen planning a corporate event, each individual job is important and works together to make the event a success. If the venue for the event suddenly changes, every individual–the DJ, the caterer, the florist—have to adapt in order to make the event happen despite the change.

The same is true in nature—this is called adaptive integration.

Adaptive integration

“Flowers on the same plant can vary greatly in size,” said Dr. John Heywood, professor of biology. “If several flower parts interact to promote pollen removal and deposition by a pollinator, those parts must vary in a coordinated fashion across flowers in order to consistently promote successful pollination, a pattern that is referred to as adaptive integration.”

In flowers, this process has previously been difficult to demonstrate. Heywood’s team was able to demonstrate adaptive integration of flower parts in a Missouri prairie plant called Ruella humilis, or the common wild petunia, by including appropriate controls for background levels of correlation.

“Our study was also novel in that we were able to obtain separate estimates of integration in response to genetic and environmental sources of variation in flower size,” said Heywood. “This was important because adaptive integration should be apparent in the face of both genetic and environmental variation, whereas this is not necessarily the case for background correlations.”

The team, composed of Heywood and six undergraduate students, found strong evidence for genetic and environmental integration of flower parts that interact to promote the removal and deposition of pollen. Surprisingly, for other pairs of flower parts the patterns of genetic and environmental correlations were largely discordant, suggesting a lack of adaptive integration.

They published the study in “Annals of Botany.”

Involving students

This study was part of a larger project directed at understanding the consequences of a recent loss of pollination services in the Missouri population of this species.

“Obtaining separate estimates of genetic and environmental correlations between traits requires a large population of plants generated by an explicit breeding design, followed by precise measurements of multiple traits on several flowers per plant,” said Heywood.

Heywood emphasized the importance of student undergraduate research.

“There is nothing quite like learning something about the natural world that nobody before you has known,” said Heywood. “That kind of experience is often what inspires a student to pursue graduate studies with the goal of becoming a practicing scientist.”

Getting published

Heywood and six undergraduate biology students recently published a paper on their research project titled “Genetic and environmental integration of the hawkmoth pollination syndrome in Ruellia humilis (Acanthaceae)” in “Annals of Botany.”

The students who contributed to the article and project were:

  • Joseph Michalski
  • Braden McCann
  • Amber Russo
  • Kara Andres
  • Allison Hall
  • Tessa Middleton

“Data were collected over three years by a team of dedicated student researchers, without whom a project of this magnitude would not have been possible,” said Heywood.

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