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LIU Brooklyn Botanist’s Breakthrough Research Recognized by AAAS

Jeanmaire Molina’s Study Raises Important Questions About the Nature of Plants

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Sarah DeCamp,Associate Director of Public Relations
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RafflesiaDr. Jeanmaire Molina’s research on Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, has been featured on the online news service of the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as well as in the life science magazine The Scientist. Molina is an LIU Brooklyn assistant professor of biology. Her work first appeared in a research article in Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Molina, a botanist, has been studying the rare Southeast Asian species Rafflesia and found that of the three genomes common to all plants—nuclear, mitochondrial, and chloroplast—the chloroplast genome is apparently absent in Rafflesia. Chloroplasts convert sunlight to sugars and give plants their characteristic green color. This lack of a chloroplast genome is found only in one other plant species, a form of algae. While a firm conclusion cannot yet be drawn because only tiny fragments of the genome were found, it’s possible that the plant’s chloroplasts are missing, found in very small levels, or hidden.

“Rafflesia is one of the rarest plants in the world and a charismatic icon of biodiversity conservation, akin to the panda,” Molina explains. “It is only found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Rafflesia produces the largest flowers in the world (noted by Guinness Book of World Records) and it is also a parasite on a tropical vine. It has no roots, leaves or stems, just a massive reddish orange flower that sticks out of its host vine. Rafflesia also mimics the stink of decaying meat, thus the common name, corpse flower, which makes it attractive to fly pollinators. Equally astounding is the fact that it may be first plant not to have a chloroplast genome, the set of genetic instructions that makes plants green and allows for photosynthesis. To me, the combination of these characteristics in a plant: gigantic flowers, parasitic, foul-smelling, and perhaps the first plant not to have a chloroplast genome truly make it an evolutionary marvel!”

Molina worked with Michael Purugganan from New York University and while their investigations found small traces of plastid DNA in Rafflesia, none of them were full genes, and none were functional. They continue their research, looking for why these plants may have lost their genomes. They hope that their research will influence other scientists to delve further into this subject and lead to more discovery of whether plastid genomes are truly essential in plant life.

Posted 03/04/2014

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