UCT scientists scoop study award

Colleague Robert Ingle and Professor Nicola Illing on a field trip.

UCT scientists are part of an international team that has won a prestigious research grant to study the genetics of floral asymmetry in South African plants.

Professor Nicola Illing, of UCT’s department of molecular and cell biology, said there were 600 applications for funding from the Human Frontiers Science Programme, which is based in Strasbourg, France, for their programme in understanding the complexity of living organisms.

Of these, 70 were invited to submit full applications, and the project on floral asymmetry was ranked fifth out of the 21 projects that received awards. “It’s unusual in that it’s supporting international collaboration and curiosity driven research,” said the Camps Bay professor.

The team is made up of Professor Illing, molecular biologists Professor Robert Ingle and Professor Dirk Lang at UCT and ecologist Professor Bruce Anderson at Stellenbosch University. Others include Professor Michael Lenhard of the University of Potsdam in Germany, Professor Spencer Barratt of the University of Toronto and Dr Eva Deinum of the University of Wageningen in The Netherlands.

Over the next three years, they will investigate the genetics of how symmetry is broken in mirror-image flowers of two endemic South African plants, Wachendorfia paniculata and Cyanella alba.

“We will compare this to Heteranthera multiflora, found across the Americas,” said Professor Illing.

She explained that South Africa is home to over 22 000 indigenous seed plants from almost 230 different families. These represent 10% of the world’s flowering species. The flowers of most plants are symmetrical, she said. These three species are highly unusual as each of them produces mirror image flowers. “Where all the flowers have a style that is deflected either to the left or right,” she said.

In plants, the style is a long, slender stalk that connects the stigma and the ovary. The stigma is at the top of the style and is a sticky platform where pollen is deposited.

“If you count the number of plants that have either left or right-handed flowers you come close to half, similar to the proportion of females and males in human populations,” she said.

“The idea was to look into why these plants are right or left. The team has set themselves the challenge of understanding how the genes function and the importance of mirror image flowers and how they evolved,” she said.

Her team will initially focus their research on the common butterfly lily (Wachendorfia paniculata), another species is the Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, commonly known as red root, which grows in damp, marshy areas along Constantia greenbelt riverbanks.

Asked where this research will lead, Professor Illing said: “There’s a view that researchers must solve problems that have direct application. However, there are many examples of how curiosity driven research subsequently leads to unimagined applications. For example, understanding how a gecko sticks to a window has led to the development of synthetic adhesives and stitch free ways to heal wounds.

“We will be using the tools of genetics and molecular and cell biology to unravel answers to interesting evolutionary questions, using examples from the biological landscape of southern Africa. At this stage, our research is primarily driven by curiosity and the beauty of biological complexity. But one never knows what interesting applications may be invented from this knowledge in the future.”

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, commonly known as red root, grows in damp, marshy areas along Constantia greenbelt riverbanks.
Wachendorfia paniculata growing on the lower slopes of the Twelve Apostles above Camp’s Bay.
The Cyanella alba, commonly known as five fingers or yellow lady’s hands, forms part of the research.