Take that, sunflowers. The convoluted genetic code that has thwarted scientists for so long has finally been cracked. Scientists published their findings in the journal Nature.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus L.) make compelling research subjects for a number of reasons. Their richly hued faces are both appealing and iconic, figuring in some of the world’s most famous art. Sunflower seeds and sunflower oil are big-deal crops in some parts of the world, in part because the hardy plants can tough it out through drought and other extreme conditions. And the flower heads famously do this:
Previous attempts to dissect the full sunflower genome have all been unsuccessful, thanks to the many long, confusing, and similar-looking chunks of DNA in the plant’s blueprint. We simply didn’t have the technology to make sense of it.
Now we do, after an enormous team of researchers from Canada, France, the United States, and Israel put their brains together. They developed a platform to unspool and identify 3.6 gigabases—that’s 3.6 x 1,000,000,000 base pairs—of sunflower DNA.
The results trace the evolution of not only the sunflower but of the entire asterid clade, a massive family of more than 75,000 plants including tomatoes, sweet potatoes, petunias, coffee, sesame, lettuce, mint, honeysuckle, olives, and teak trees.
Around 29 million years ago, the sunflower split off and began copying its genome into the tricky patchwork it is today.
“This is one of the most challenging genomes published to date,” senior author Loren Rieseberg of the University of British Columbia said in a statement [PDF]. “Not only have we sequenced sunflower’s genome but we have also built physical and genetic maps of its structure, which increases the genome’s value for research and breeding.”