Scientists at the University of California - Santa Barbara discovered a gene that is “critical to the development” of the columbine flowers' spurs.
So, what better way to honor this ‘spurs’ gene by naming it after San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich? Well, that’s exactly what these university researchers did.
“This gene is a transcription factor, which means it controls spur development in columbines by regulating the activity of other genes,” said research associate Evangeline Ballerini, who is leading the project. “So I chose the name POPOVICH because as coach, Popovich controls San Antonio Spurs development, in a sense, by regulating the activity of his players.”
Ballerini, UC Santa Barbara professor Scott Hodges and others published their findings on the critical gene in the journal PNAS this past summer. The group studied the genetic changes in the columbine flower and after much research, discovered this ‘POPOVICH’ gene was “critical to the development” of the flowers’ spurs, or long tube-like structures.
The scientists initially studied the flowers and their spurs, which lead to the flower’s nectar. However, to find out how that trait developed, researchers had a complicated task ahead, as the columbine flowers are composed of about 30,000 genes and there was only one gene they were looking for.
Ballerini sequenced the genome of nearly 300 second generation columbine flowers and looked for “instances in which the spurless plants had inherited two copies from their spurless grandparent,” according to the university’s website.
Researchers were then able to narrow their search to around 1,100 genes.
“There was no guarantee that these methods would lead us to the gene we were looking for,” Ballerini said. “There was definitely quite a bit of work that went into all of the experiments and analyses, but in the end there was a bit of luck too.”
Ballerini studied the genes during five stages of early petal development in columbine flowers without spurs and three others with spurs. Eventually, after consulting with other researchers from Harvard, Ballerini said she believed she found the right gene.
Ballerini says the name, POPOVICH, still seems like the perfect fit.
“It leaves open the possibility that, if we identify other genes at play in spur development, we can name them after some of the players on the Spurs,” she said.
According to the university’s website, their findings are among the “first key innovations for which a critical developmental gene has been identified" for the columbine flowers.
You can learn more about the researchers' findings on the POPOVICH gene by reading the full study here.