Friday, March 30, 2012 - 9:26am

Vincent van Gogh produced five versions of sunflowers in vases or bouqets, each subtly distinct from the others. Often accused of the dual curse of genius and madness, UGA scientists have confirmed that, though van Gogh may have had other struggles, inaccurate vision was not among them.

 

In a study published March 29 in the journal PLoS Genetics, however, a team of University of Georgia scientists reveals the mutation behind the distinctive, thick bands of yellow "double flowers" that the post-Impressionist artist painted more than 100 years ago.

"In addition to being of interest from a historical perspective, this finding gives us insight into the molecular basis of an economically important trait," said senior author John Burke, professor of plant biology in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "You often see ornamental varieties similar to the ones van Gogh painted growing in people's gardens or used for cut flowers, and there is a major market for them."

The most common sunflower phenotype is a composite flower head that contains a single whorl of large, flattened, yellow ray florets on the outer perimeter and hundreds to over a thousand individual, tubular, disc florets that can produce seeds. The double-flowered mutants that van Gogh depicted in many of his paintings, on the other hand, have multiple bands of yellow florets and a much smaller proportion of internal disc florets.

To understand the genetic basis of this difference, Burke and his colleagues began by using the same plant crossing techniques that Gregor Mendel, a 19th century contemporary of van Gogh, used to lay the foundation of modern genetics. The scientists crossed the common, or wild type, variety of sunflower with the double-flowered variety. 

Just in time for Spring. Congratulations to Dr. Burke and his team for the well-deserved attention this research is receiving as a further illumination of genetic mutations, in a context with which we are all already in thrall.

Image: Sunflowers.Vincent van Gogh, 1887. 17 x 24 in., Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art