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Professor Studies Lily’s Bloom

By Emily R. Breslow, Contributing Writer

Most people take the world’s natural beauty for granted. But Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan uses it as inspiration to guide research in his lab at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Mahadevan made an important discovery about how lilies bloom, finding that ruffling at the edge of each petal drives the delicate flower to open, contradicting the previous theories of blooming. Differential growth at the edges of each petal, rather than the stem as commonly suggested, provides the driving force behind the lily’s bloom, according to Mahadevan’s study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mahadevan made the discovery by creating a mathematical model to represent the dynamics of the flower’s blooming, a somewhat non-traditional approach to botany research.

Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Jacques Dumais said that he believes this to be the first time people have measured what is going on beneath the surface of a blooming lily in a mathematical way.

While contradicting the previously dominant belief on lily blooming, Mahadevan said his finding does vindicate the research of German literary master Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In 1790 Goethe wrote a poorly received essay entitled “Metamorphosis of Plants” in which he proposed that petals and leaves could be homologous, meaning they are both derived from one ancestral form.

Mahadevan said that his research takes a step toward validating this 220-year-old claim by finally quantifying one aspect of that similarity by showing that—in addition to being shaped similarly—the morphologies of petal and leaves are often determined by similar principles.

In his newly released paper he shows that lilies bloom using a mechanism that is similar to leaf growth.

“In particular, leaves have rippled edges due to gradients in growth in the plane that lead to the edge growing more than the middle,” Mahadevan said.

Previous research by Mahadevan, a member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, has asked questions about how snakes slither and how the Venus Flytrap snaps its jaws, questions united in their shared inspiration by the beauty of nature.

In a press release, Mahadevan said that the study of lilies was an example of how natural beauty can stimulate scientific research.

“It is just one more small instance of being inspired by and curious about the natural world around us, a subject that fascinates us all,” he said.

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