Genes that determine flower color: the role of regulatory changes in the evolution of phenotypic adaptations

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2003 Dec;29(3):507-18. doi: 10.1016/s1055-7903(03)00196-9.


A central goal of evolutionary genetics is to trace the causal pathway between mutations at particular genes and adaptation at the phenotypic level. The proximate objective is to identify adaptations through the analysis of molecular sequence data from specific candidate genes or their regulatory elements. In this paper, we consider the molecular evolution of floral color in the morning glory genus (Ipomoea) as a model for relating molecular and phenotypic evolution. To begin, flower color variation usually conforms to simple Mendelian transmission, thus facilitating genetic and molecular analyses. Population genetic studies of flower color polymorphisms in the common morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) have shown that some morphs are subject to complex patterns of selection. Striking differences in floral color and morphology are also associated with speciation in the genus Ipomoea. The molecular bases for these adaptive shifts can be dissected because the biosynthetic pathways that determine floral pigmentation are well understood and many of the genes of flavonoid biosynthesis have been isolated and extensively studied. We present a comparative analysis of the level of gene expression in Ipomoea for several key genes in flavonoid biosynthesis. Specifically we ask: how frequently are adaptive shifts in flower color phenotypes associated with changes in regulation of gene expression versus mutations in structural genes? The results of this study show that most species differences in this crucial phenotype are associated with changes in the regulation of gene expression.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Blotting, Northern
  • DNA, Complementary / genetics
  • Flavonoids / biosynthesis
  • Flowers / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Plant*
  • In Situ Hybridization
  • Ipomoea / genetics*
  • Ipomoea / physiology
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Phylogeny*
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • DNA, Complementary
  • Flavonoids