November 12, 2008 | Rachel Murray, Manager of Interpretation & Evaluation

Every gardener visiting a nursery knows what they're looking for based on a basic distinction: annuals or perennials. What if the categories weren't so clear? Scientists have discovered that it is just two genes that determine whether a plant is annual or perennial.

The distinction between annuals and perennials is based on reproductive strategy. Generally, annuals tend to germinate, grow, and flower quickly to produce seeds that will be the carriers of DNA into the next generation - DNA is what it's all about! Perennials, on the other hand, have a variety of life strategies. They usually survive from year to year, harboring their DNA all the while, often able to set seed and survive to bloom again.

Scientists at VIB- a non-profit scientific research organization, have discovered that by switching off two flower-inducing genes, an annual plant (in this case, the model plant biology organism Arabidopsis thaliana) won't flower, and will continue to grow vegetatively for a very long time. They also develop characteristics of a perennial that you are probably familiar with: woody growth and a shrubby form.

Scientists have often wondered how that trait has evolved, and this discovery "raises the veil" on that mechanism.  Like most scientific advances, we don't yet know what this means in the big picture, but time will tell. Practically, horticultural and agricultural scientists are bound to come up with some new plants from this discovery, and they may be controversial: we wouldn't want the switched-off genes escaping into ecosystems. I'm always glad to see what scientists are adding to our shared body of knowledge!


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