The findings - published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition - provide a perfect example of how diversity stems from such genetic 'mistakes'. The research also opens the door to further investigation into how plants make flowers - the origins of the seeds and fruits that we eat.
In a number of plants, the gene involved in making male and female organs has duplicated to create two, very similar, copies. In rockcress (Arabidopsis), one copy still makes male and female parts, but the other copy has taken on a completely new role: it makes seed pods shatter open. In snapdragons (Antirrhinum), both genes are still linked to sex organs, but one copy makes mainly female parts, while still retaining a small role in male organs - but the other copy can only make male.
"Snapdragons are on the cusp of splitting the job of making male and female organs between these two genes, a key moment in the evolutionary process," says lead researcher Professor of Plant Development, Brendan Davies, from Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences. "More genes with different roles gives an organism added complexity and opens the door to diversification and the creation of new species."
By tracing back through the evolutionary 'tree' for flowering plants, the researchers calculate the gene duplication took place around 120 million years ago. But the mutation which separates how snapdragons and rock cress use this extra gene happened around 20 million years later.
The researchers have discovered that the different behaviour of the gene in each plant is linked to one amino acid. Although the genes look very similar, the proteins they encode don't always have this amino acid. When it is present, the activity of the protein is limited to making only male parts. When the amino acid isn't there, the protein is able to interact with a range of other proteins involved in flower production, enabling it to make both male and female parts.
"A small mutation in the gene fools the plant's machinery to insert an extra amino acid and this tiny change has created a dramatic difference in how these plants control making their reproductive organs," says Professor Davies. "This is evolution in action, although we don't know yet whether this mutation will turn out to be a dead end and go no further or whether it might lead to further complexities.
"Our research is an excellent example of how a chance imperfection sparks evolutionary change. If we lived in a perfect world, it would be a much less interesting one, with no diversity and no chance for new species to develop."
The researchers now plan to study the protein interactions which enable the production of both male and female parts as part of further investigation into the genetic basis by which plants produce flowers.
The research was supported by funding from the European Union Marie Curie Research Training Program and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
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Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
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Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792
Richard Bayliss, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2017), £1,600,000
John Barr, EU (Jan 2017), £339,000
Mark Harris, Royal Society (Jan 2017), £250,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Jan 2017), £105,000
Alex Breeze, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (Jan 2017), £180,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2016), £18,000