Genetics of sunflowers and van Gogh’s obsession

By , April 2, 2012 3:54 pm

As any art lover would recognize, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers often depict a variety of flower shapes not commonly seen in nature. These impressionist paintings may be derived from his interpretation of the flower shape or these unusual structures could arise from a very tangible set of unusual genetic variations. A study by John Burke (UGa) recently published in PLoS Genetics addresses sunflower genes that lead to alterations in flower petal symmetry.

The large head of a sunflower is not a single flower, but comprised of many smaller flowers called florets. Burke’s work led to the discovery of two mutations to a single gene (HaCYC2c) that impacts floret symmetry. “Mis-expression of this gene causes a double-flowered phenotype, similar to those captured in Vincent van Gogh’s famous nineteenth-century paintings, whereas loss of gene function causes radialization of the normally bilaterally symmetric ray florets.” It appears that Burke’s group has identified the mutation that caused the double-flowered varieties painted by van Gogh.

Does this new knowledge diminish the aesthetic quality and artistic value of van Gogh’s paintings? We have a small poster replica of one of these paintings in our house and I had always thought that the double headed flowers were flights of fancy rather than an accurate record of plants that once lived. Having evidence that changes in flower shape and structure just like in the painting increases my joy in viewing.

The intersection between art and science will become increasingly well developed as we gain greater depth of understanding in the relationship between gene expression and phenotype. While this removes some of the mystery behind the presence of surprising aspects of our world, to the scientist, this new knowledge increases the beauty. There is much to be gained by having scientists view the world from the perspective of the artist; a much less developed approach is to encourage the artist to view the world through the lens of the scientist.

2 Responses to “Genetics of sunflowers and van Gogh’s obsession”

  1. David Goodfellow says:

    I guess it is an indication of how detached many people have become from the natural world that you didn’t realize that sunflowers have many genetic variations, including double forms(a very common mutation in daisy family plants). Any seed catalogue will show you the range available, including a number of double forms like van Gogh’s. It is nice we now know the exact genetic basis, but gardeners have been collecting and cultivating these kinds of mutations for several centuries. I am truly surprised you thought them a ‘flight of fancy’!

  2. I want to say that the sunflower is really good in its genes, this is a great article on that.

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