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Van Gogh's sunflowers: mutant genes illuminated

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Sunflowers painted by renowned artist Vincent Van Gogh possessed mutant genes, scientists report, responsible for rows of "double flowers" seen in his most famous painting.

In the journal PLoS Genetics, a University of Georgia team headed by plant biologist John Burke, crossed regular sunflowers with the double-flowered mutants painted by the artist, in a bid to examine their genetics, zeroing in on a gene called "HaCYC2c" as a player in the double flowers.

"Mis-expression of this gene causes a double-flowered phenotype, similar to those captured in Vincent van Gogh's famous nineteenth-century paintings, whereas loss of gene function causes radialization of the normally bilaterally symmetric ray florets," says the study.

Radialization refers to the floral leaves spreading flatly outward like the spokes on a wheel.

Given that all four of the "double flower" types of sunflower investigated in the study carry the same mutant form of the gene, the study researchers say, "it seems likely that this mutation arose just once, and has been incorporated into multiple cultivars because it produces a desirable floral morphology."

So much for natural selection, in other word-- flower fanciers besides Van Gogh have long taken a shine to double flowers, the study suggests.

Who can blame them?

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