When it came to naming a gene that could lead to new insights on a crucial feature of evolution, the Harvard Organismic and Evolutionary Biology alumna leading the project aimed for something rather tongue in cheek. She called it POPOVICH, after San Antonio Spurs coach and president Gregg Popovich.
Evangeline Ballerini, Ph.D. ’10, an assistant professor of biological sciences at California State University, Sacramento, said she and her collaborators — including Harvard’s Elena Kramer — settled on the name because the newly discovered gene calls the shots for floral nectar spurs the way Popovich does for his NBA team.
“I ended up choosing to name it after Gregg Popovich, in part, because the gene plays a regulatory role in spur development, kind of like a coach controls the development of their team,” said Ballerini, who is a long-time Golden State Warriors fan and a part-time Celtics fan because of her time in the Boston area, but respects the Spurs and admires Popovich’s leadership.
The work is described in a recently published study in PNAS.
Nectar spurs are the hollow tubes that bulge out from a number of flowers and are crucial to increasing biodiversity among flowering plants that have them. In many cases, species with nectar spurs are much more diverse than their close relative without this novel trait.
In the paper, the scientists identify the gene critical to controlling the development of these spurs in the common columbine, or Aquilegia. They found it acts as a master regulator that appears to control the creation of the spurs by regulating the activity of other genes, the way a coach decides who plays and when.
Aside from the quirky NBA reference, what really has evolutionary biologists excited about the discovery is that the findings have the potential to help them understand how organisms get their vast array of shapes and traits, and then how those traits evolve.
Nectar spurs are considered a key innovation in flowers, meaning they are considered a novel feature — one that helps organisms make the greatest use of their environment and leads to a diversity boom. Animals that evolved to have wings, for instance, have spun off into number of different species over millions of years. Other key innovations are eyes or the backbone in mammals.