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An epigenetic mutation responsible for natural variation in floral symmetry



Although there have been many molecular studies of morphological mutants generated in the laboratory, it is unclear how these are related to mutants in natural populations, where the constraints of natural selection and breeding structure are quite different. Here we characterize a naturally occurring mutant of Linaria vulgaris, originally described more than 250 years ago by Linnaeus1,2,3, in which the fundamental symmetry of the flower is changed from bilateral to radial. We show that the mutant carries a defect in Lcyc, a homologue of the cycloidea gene which controls dorsoventral asymmetry in Antirrhinum4. The Lcyc gene is extensively methylated and transcriptionally silent in the mutant. This modification is heritable and co-segregates with the mutant phenotype. Occasionally the mutant reverts phenotypically during somatic development, correlating with demethylation of Lcyc and restoration of gene expression. It is surprising that the first natural morphological mutant to be characterized should trace to methylation, given the rarity of this mutational mechanism in the laboratory. This indicates that epigenetic mutations may play a more significant role in evolution than has hitherto been suspected.

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We thank the Linnean Society of London for permission to photograph the specimen of peloric Linaria kept in Linnaeus' herbarium and thank C. Jarvis from the Natural History Museum in London for providing the photograph; we also thank M. Cragg-Barber for providing a living peloric specimen from the UK; N. Hartley for sequencing the genomic Lcyc region; D. Bradley for the Lcentroradialis probe; C. Martin for the Antirrhinum ubiquitin probe; and R. Carpenter, D. Bradley, O. Ratcliffe, I. Amaya and U. Nath for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. P.C. was an EMBO postdoctoral fellow and a EU postdoctoral fellow.

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Correspondence to Enrico Coen.

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Further reading

Figure 1: Wild-type and peloric Linaria vulgaris flowers.
Figure 2: Development of wild-type and peloric flowers as revealed by scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and expression of Lcyc during floral development.
Figure 3: Sequence of Lcyc.
Figure 4: RFLP analysis and methylation of Lcyc.
Figure 5: Somatic instability of the peloric phenotype correlates with demethylation of Lcyc.


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