Carnivorous plants have evolved cup-shaped traps four times independently and each time they evolved from flat leaves.
This raises the question of how the development of a flat leaf has been modified to produce these complex structures, and whether the same thing happened each time they evolved?
Have genes involved in simple leaf development simply been modified or have novel genes been acquired to create the new shape?
Chris is using the aquatic carnivorous plant Utricularia gibba to answer these questions using both forward and reverse genetics approaches:
Firstly, in collaboration with Karen Lee and Robert Bellow, he have performed a screen for trap mutants in an EMS-treated mutant population of U. gibba. They are mapping causative mutations using whole-genome-sequencing and analysing their role in trap development. This will not only help them understand the genetic mechanisms of trap development, but also allow them to compare the genetic pathways of trap development in U. gibba with that of flat leaves to help us speculate how traps evolved.
Secondly, in collaboration with Beatriz Gonçalves, Chris is analysing the role of U. gibba homologues of genes known to be involved in flat leaf development in other plants. This will allow them to see how the flat leaf developmental program has been modified to create a cup shape.
The results from these approaches are being used in conjunction with computational modelling to refine our hypotheses about the development and evolution of these complex leaves.