Plant development is a much more plastic process than animal development and, because it is environmentally entrained, fits individual plants to their particular habitat. Our objective is to understand the ways in which single gene products control different aspects of plant development and thus contribute to the fitness of plants. A detailed understanding of the complex process of plant development is necessary if we wish to develop crops which will thrive under different abiotic and biotic stresses - particularly important considering the growing population of the world! We are also interested in the evolution of developmental programmes, looking at the sequence and function of key genes throughout the plant kingdom, in an effort to associate molecular changes with morphological transitions. Much of our molecular work is carried out using model plant species, such as Arabidopsis thaliana, thale cress, and Antirrhinum majus, snapdragon. The evolutionary work extends throughout the plant kingdom, looking at monocots such as grasses, basal angiosperms such as Magnolia and older plant lineages such as the mosses.
A number of projects are currently investigating the evolution of developmental processes ("evo-devo"). We are interested in the development of the anther cone of the genus Solanum (potato, tomato, aubergine etc). The anthers of all members of this genus are held together in a cone shape which is grasped by pollen-collecting bees. However, differences in the development of the cone in different members of the genus have led to the suggestion that it may have evolved more than once within the group. This can be tested using genetic, molecular and transgenic techniques. We are also interested in the distribution of conical-papillate petal cells (which trap light and make petals look brighter) throughout the angiosperms - around 80% of species investigated have these specialized cells. Using the master gene controlling this developmental programme in Antirrhinum, we are investigating whether this cell type has evolved multiple times or not, and whether it is generated by the same mechanism in all species.