Latest Issue of Science News

5/2/15 Cover

Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things

Wild Things

A protein battle underlies the beauty of orchids

Phalaenopsis orchid

The shapes of the petals and lip of this Phalaenopsis orchid are governed by competition between two different protein complexes, a new study finds.

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One of the main characteristics that make orchids so attractive to us and to pollinators is shape. Unlike a flower such as a daisy, orchids don’t have a uniform pattern of petals and sepals. Instead, one of the orchid flower petals has been modified into a lip that can serve as a landing zone for, say, a bee.

The formation of the lip and the standard petals, a new study finds, is governed by two competing sets of proteins. And when researchers modified those proteins, they changed an orchid’s shape. Hsing-Fun Hsu of National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan, and colleagues report their findings April 27 in Nature Plants.

In plants, flower development is controlled by a group of genes called MADS-box. About 60 million years ago in orchid ancestors, some of these MADS-box genes got duplicated, and those new versions of the genes changed in ways that gave them new functions. In studying those genes, Hsu and colleagues found two groups of proteins, the “L” complex and the “SP” complex. How much of each protein complex a flower makes determines whether the lip or the standard petals are dominant.

A mutant version of one orchid called Oncidium Gower Ramsey has petals that are all shaped like lips, and it expresses only the L proteins, the researchers found. In other species, the team found that the balance between lip and petal was reflected in the expression of the two protein complexes. The scientists then used a virus to manipulate the expression of the L complex in Oncidium and Phalaenopsis orchids, which converted lips into standard petals.

“This experiment nicely shows that during orchid evolution two copies of duplicated developmental genes acquired a new function by specifically promoting lip identity,” Barbara Gravendeel and Anita Dirks-Mulder of the University of Applied Sciences Leiden in the Netherlands, write in an accompanying commentary in Nature Plants.

Orchids are somewhat of an evolutionary oddity in that they manage to lure in pollinators without offering some kind of food reward in return. Usually pollinators figure out pretty quickly that there’s no point in visiting flowers that don’t provide them with some benefit. But there’s something about orchids that keeps luring them in. Understanding the genes and proteins that underlie the shape and allure of orchids could help scientists figure out how these plants manage to attract bees, flies, moths, mantises, butterflies, gnats and bats — and us.

Paleontology,, Evolution

Your toy stegosaurus may be a girl

By Sarah Zielinski 2:00pm, April 22, 2015
Male and female stegosaurs may have looked different, a new study finds.
Animals,, Oceans

Growth of mining on land may promote invasions at sea

By Sarah Zielinski 7:46pm, April 21, 2015
Ballast water taken in to keep ships stable could, when discharged elsewhere, release species that become invasive in their new homes.
Ecosystems,, Ecology

Before you plant this spring, consider the birds

By Sarah Zielinski 10:00am, April 20, 2015
A study of Chicago neighborhoods finds that the plants in private yards influence the variety of birds that live in the area.

How many manatees live in Florida?

By Sarah Zielinski 4:30pm, April 15, 2015
The most recent official count reports more than 6,000 manatees in Florida waters, but a new estimate may give a better picture of the population.

Flight delayed: There’s a coyote on the runway

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, April 14, 2015
A new study tallies up airport incidents involving carnivores and finds coyotes are the biggest threat.
Animals,, Oceans

Tiny sea turtles are swimmers, not drifters

By Sarah Zielinski 12:00pm, April 9, 2015
Young green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles moved in different directions than instruments set adrift in the sea, which shows the animals were swimming.
Animals,, Ecology,, Climate

Eggs and other land foods won’t feed polar bears

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, April 5, 2015
Polar bears will not be able to survive on land by eating birds, eggs and vegetation, a new review concludes.
Animals,, Conservation

How human activities may be creating coywolves

By Sarah Zielinski 8:00am, April 1, 2015
Endangered red wolves will mate with coyotes when their partners are killed, which often happens because of human activities, a new study finds.
Animals,, Conservation

‘If you build it they will come’ fails for turtle crossings

By Sarah Zielinski 2:00pm, March 25, 2015
Turtles and snakes barely used an ecopassage built to make their movements safer. Scientists blame poor fencing that failed to keep them off the roadway.
Animals,, Conservation

Conservationists should make friends with hunters

By Sarah Zielinski 1:22pm, March 20, 2015
A survey of outdoor enthusiasts in rural New York finds that both hunters and birdwatchers are likely to engage in conservation behaviors, such as donating money.
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