Flowers have an amazingly diverse display of colors and shapes, and these characteristics often vary significantly among closely related species. The evolution of diverse floral form can be thought of as an adaptive response to pollination and reproduction, but it can also be seen through the lens of morphological and developmental constraints. To explore these interactions, we use RNA-seq across species and development to investigate gene expression and sequence evolution as they relate to the evolution of the diverse flowers in a group of Neotropical plants native to Mexico—magic flowers (Achimenes, Gesneriaceae).
The assembled transcriptomes contain between 29,000 and 42,000 genes expressed during development. We combine sequence orthology and coexpression clustering with analyses of protein evolution to identify candidate genes for roles in floral form evolution. Over 25% of transcripts captured were distinctive to Achimenes and overrepresented by genes involved in transcription factor activity. Using a model-based clustering approach we find dynamic, temporal patterns of gene expression among species. Selection tests provide evidence of positive selection in several genes with roles in pigment production, flowering time, and morphology. Combining these approaches to explore genes related to flower color and flower shape, we find distinct patterns that correspond to transitions of floral form among Achimenes species.
The floral transcriptomes developed from four species of Achimenes provide insight into the mechanisms involved in the evolution of diverse floral form among closely related species with different pollinators. We identified several candidate genes that will serve as an important and useful resource for future research. High conservation of sequence structure, patterns of gene coexpression, and detection of positive selection acting on few genes suggests that large phenotypic differences in floral form may be caused by genetic differences in a small set of genes. Our characterized floral transcriptomes provided here should facilitate further analyses into the genomics of flower development and the mechanisms underlying the evolution of diverse flowers in Achimenes and other Neotropical Gesneriaceae.