Yellow monkey flower could shed light on evolution's mysteries

May 23, 2012 By Brenden Lynch
Yellow monkey flower could shed light on evolution's mysteries
Researcher John Kelly's work involves the wildflower Mimulus guttatus (yellow monkeyflower).

( -- The French impressionist Claude Monet once credited flowers as the reason for him “having become a painter.”

Similarly, the University of Kansas’ John Kelly might acknowledge a certain wildflower as guiding his career as a population genetics researcher.

The professor of ecology and evolutionary biology has spent years studying the yellow monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) because the unassuming blossom offers insight into some of the most deep-seated questions about the tree of life.

“We work on the yellow monkey flower because it’s a model,” Kelly said. “Models are species that you study to learn about organisms in general.”

Other common model organisms include fruit flies, nematodes and yeast, according to the researcher.

“It’s not because people are fantastically interested in the particular features of a fruit fly or a yeast,” said Kelly. “Instead, they study it because they can learn things about animal genetics in general much faster than by working on something they’re more interested in — like humans. If we had to work only on humans to understand genetics, than it would have taken many additional decades to discover the chromosomal basis of inheritance, for example.”

Kelly and his team grow thousands of the wildflowers in greenhouses at KU’s Haworth Hall, allowing the researchers to follow genetic traits and changes over fast-reproducing generations, using techniques like controlled crosses, inbreeding and artificial selection, along with modern molecular approaches using DNA and next-generation genome sequencing. Their findings apply to a host of species beyond the greenhouse.

“It’s pretty easy to relate the genome of yellow monkey flower to almost any other plant. For a core group of genes that have basic metabolic functions, we can find the same things in animals and fungi.”

Kelly says his research with the flower explores basic questions such as, “Why is everyone different from everyone else?” He’s interested in shedding light on whether variation in complex traits — such as the size of the yellow monkey flower — is part of the grand strategy of or merely a byproduct of genetic mutation.

Since 2006, Kelly’s research has been helped along by more than $3 million from the National Institutes of Health, in part because questions answered by his inquiry into the yellow monkey flower will apply to human biology. For instance, alleles (or alternative forms of a single gene) that control for size in yellow monkey might clarify why there is variation in human height or disease susceptibility.

“For a trait like human height, there’s a substantial amount of genetic variation out there,” Kelly said. “But the simple truth is that we don’t know why such variation exists. We don’t know why, at all these genes that affect height, why you don’t have just one single allele — whatever is optimal. We don’t know why there are multiple different alleles out in the wild. We know that mutations produced them at some time in the past, but we don’t know why they still exist today.”

Further, an understanding of complex trait variation in a model species like the yellow monkey flower could lead to a better grasp of humans’ genetic susceptibility to diseases like cancer and heart disease in humans.

“There are genuine and important differences between different groups of species,” said Kelly. “But you’ll learn more about human genetics working on something else. You’d learn about basic features — like the fact that genes reside on chromosomes — much more rapidly, by working on something that you can actually work on.”

Explore further: Rock-paper-scissors model helps researchers demonstrate benefits of high mutation rates

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

History of flies takes flight

Apr 05, 2011

( -- A Simon Fraser University biologist’s fly research fill out a global tree of life map of all living organisms, even though he retired from SFU three years ago.

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Fortunately for men, size doesn't matter (much)

Jan 10, 2012

( -- Researchers from The Australian National University have discovered that the male-specific Y-chromosome is shrinking – and it’s happening at different rates across species.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.