Blossoms and the Gene That Make Them
Maxine F Singer
Oxford University Press, £16.99
This is a delightful and informative book written by a highly respected American molecular biologist, science leader and administrator. The chapter headings give a sense of the book’s tone – for example, ‘Plants are Like Animals, Only Different’ (chapter two), ‘Growing up Green’ (chapter six) and ‘Painting the Petals’ (chapter 11). However, the writing is in no way patronising to the reader: it has a clarity and elegance of expression that is underpinned by a great deal of science.
Blossoms takes the reader on an exciting journey, starting with a nod to Linnaeus and the importance of names, so one knows what one is talking about, both with plants and genes.
The sequence of events is intertwined with the author’s own experiences of plants, proteins, genes and start-up companies. After a well-written series of chapters on basic genetics and epigenetics – heritable changes involving extra chemical groups such as methyl groups attached to the DNA – we learn how plants respond to the environmental signals that initiate flowering.
The FLORIGEN gene is a recurring theme in the narrative. Flower construction begins, and the author takes us through the genetic ‘symphony’ involving APETALA, PISTILLATA, SEP and AGAMOUS genes that results in Arabidopsis flowering.
Flowers, of course, have many different shapes, and the importance of variant copies of some genes such as PISTILLATA and APETALA 3 is mentioned. The final two chapters discuss the molecules that give blossoms their colours and perfumes. Many examples are given, from a number of
Mimulus species that produce both carotinoids and anthocyanins for different colours to the 40 varieties of jasmine, each of which has a slightly different smell owing to varying amounts of as many as 300 different molecules.
The text is accessible to everyone and would be an excellent read for any enquiring mind. No prior knowledge of molecular science is required. There are also nine well-chosen colour plates to illustrate the themes in the text.
Some more diagrams may have been useful, but the text certainly stands by itself, and the author provides a list of books and scientific articles for further reading. For anyone who loves flowers and would like to know more about their genetics and how they work, this is the book for them.
James Crabbe CBiol FRSB