Wednesday, February 6, 2008

War and peas

A couple of years ago there was an interesting report regarding some unusual genetics in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which showed that something beyond Mendelian genetics could be operating in this species. Very exciting stuff---not that it would suddenly invalidate all of Mendelian genetics, and not because it was just another cool biological mechanism (the more one looks, the more interesting mechanisms one discovers in nature) ---but because the implications were really revolutionary. There appeared to be a trans-generational genetic ‘memory’ of some kind; plants carrying only mutant versions of a gene (called hothead) seemed to yield progeny that carried normal versions of that gene. This didn’t make sense in the context of anything currently known about genetic inheritance. Anyway, some follow-up work published last year suggested that the results may have been artifactual----the mutant plants showed an increased propensity for cross-pollination (generally these plants self-pollinate) and therefore the progeny may have indeed inherited the normal copy of the gene from normal parents, not mutant ones. There is a really nice article in the latest issue of The Scientist that details the story to date. Here’s the exciting part----the report indicates that the original observations may not have been just artifacts and that something interesting is indeed going on in these plants. I’m looking forward to new developments in this story.

Incidentally, the same issue also carries a nice editorial that describes how well the scientists in the Arabidopsis research community have handled the discourse over the past couple of years.

NOTE: As you’ll find out when you click on the links, you need to register with The Scientist to read the articles. But registration is free, simple, and well worth it.

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