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Winter weather turns on flowering gene

MADISON - In four months, when flower buds spring up from the ground, you may wonder how plants know it's time to bloom. This question has baffled plant biologists for years. Now, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have an answer: a gene that functions as an alarm clock to rouse certain plants from a vegetative state in the winter to a flowering state in the spring.

According to the researchers, the findings, published in the Jan. 8 issue of the journal Nature, could lead to new methods for manipulating the productivity of crop plants, as well as a better understanding of how organisms control the fate of their cells.

Most people may not know that some of our favorite salad ingredients - carrots, cabbage, radishes, beets and parsley - take two seasons to flower and produce seeds because we harvest them before they have the chance to flower. These plants, called biennials, require a season of cold to flower.

"We've known that winter does something to the plant's growing tip, or meristem, and makes it competent to flower," says Richard Amasino, a UW-Madison biochemistry professor and senior author of the paper. "If biennials don't go through winter, they won't flower." But why, he adds, has remained a mystery.

This mystery started to unravel in 1999, when Amasino and his colleagues identified two genes central to the flowering of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small, flowering plant that's a member of the mustard family. The genes work together to block blossoming. As they observed, one of these genes is no longer expressed in the spring, when the plants can flower and complete their life cycle.

How winter switches off this flower-inhibiting gene in the second growing season, says Amasino, was the next obvious question. So, the Wisconsin scientist and UW-Madison biochemistry graduate student Sibung Sung looked to a biennial variety of Arabadopsis, a plant that's widely used as a model organism in plant bio
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Contact: Richard Amasino
amasino@biochem.wisc.edu
608-265-2170
University of Wisconsin-Madison
7-Jan-2004


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