UA Biologist Explores ‘Abominable Mystery’ that is the World of Flowers

  • October 21st, 2002

by Chris Bryant

Dr. David Oppenheimer hopes to unlock the secrets of the acorus plant.
Dr. David Oppenheimer hopes to unlock the secrets of the acorus plant.

It’s commonly known as Japanese sweet flag, although scientists call it acorus. Prior to blooming, this plant’s long, narrow, dark green blades remind the untrained of monkey grass. However, in the laboratories of The University of Alabama’s Dr. David Oppenheimer, and in labs at three other prominent U.S. universities, this ordinary looking plant — and the nine other plant species under the researchers’ scrutiny — is likely to give scientists new insights into the “abominable mystery” that is this planet’s plant life.

Oppenheimer, a UA associate professor of biological sciences, is a key part of a five-year, $7.5 million National Science Foundationfunded project that attempts to discover how flowers have changed over time.

“This project aims at understanding the diversity in a flower’s structure and to understand how the different parts of a flower are made,” said Oppenheimer. “Increasing our understanding of how flowers’ architecture, or shape, is controlled may allow us to develop more productive crops. Most of what we eat, as humans, is either grain or other flowered products.”

Known as the Floral Genome Project, the efforts involve researchers at UA, Penn State, Cornell, the University of Florida, and scientists from Oslo, Stockholm, and London. UA’s portion of the federally funded grant is approximately $1 million. Dr. Victor Albert, a former UA assistant professor of biological sciences, initiated UA’s involvement in the project. Albert continues to collaborate on the project from his Oslo laboratory.

“There are many other plant genome projects that involve isolating and cataloging genes that are expressed,” Oppenheimer said. “What’s unique about our project is that we are cataloging the genes that are expressed in a flower’s development and comparing them across many different species. We wanted this to complement the on-going projects that are using model systems.”

In typical model system research, scientists study a specific organism in-depth. Learning all they can about the model organism, which shares multiple common traits with many other organisms, enables scientists to then develop refined studies for other specific organisms. This project, one of the first significantly funded projects in comparative geonomics, instead involves searching for specific genes that appear to have the same functions in a variety of flowers.

Many of the species under study in the project are quite common and include asparagus, avocado, blueberry, cucumber, beet and the tree, Yellow Poplar. “We chose these species based on their evolutionary relationships with one another and to the major crop plants,” Oppenheimer said.

In addition to paying for the salary of a postdoctoral researcher to join Oppenheimer in the laboratory, the grant will also pay for the purchase of a robot that is capable of pipetting 96 research samples at a time and a device that uses a vibrating razor blade to slice flower tissues into sections as small as one-tenth of a millimeter — or about one-fifth the size of the lead in the average mechanical pencil. The use of NASA-developed software also will enable the UA researchers to reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the flowers following their analysis.

Using tissues taken from flower buds at various developmental stages, Oppenheimer and the other researchers search for common genes and where they are expressed, or turned on, within different flowers. While expression does not necessarily tell researchers the gene’s function, it does offer clues, Oppenheimer said. “If we can find a gene that is expressed in 100 different flowers, for example, then we can make a reasonable assumption that the gene is important for the development of a petal.”

It was two centuries ago that Charles Darwin, noted naturalist, first described the plant kingdom as an “abominable mystery,” but Oppenheimer says many mysteries remain.

“There are many genes of unknown function that have been identified. This comparative method will help us point out which genes are important for flower architecture.”


Robby Gray, 205/765-3195,


Miranda Harbin or Linda Hill, UA Media Relations,, 205/348-8370

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