Open Access Research article

Positive selection and ancient duplications in the evolution of class B floral homeotic genes of orchids and grasses

Mariana Mondragón-Palomino1*, Luisa Hiese1, Andrea Härter1, Marcus A Koch2 and Günter Theißen1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genetics, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Philosophenweg 12, D-07743 Jena, Germany

2 Institute for Plant Science, Ruprecht Karls University, Im Neuenheimer Feld 360, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:81  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-81

Published: 21 April 2009



Positive selection is recognized as the prevalence of nonsynonymous over synonymous substitutions in a gene. Models of the functional evolution of duplicated genes consider neofunctionalization as key to the retention of paralogues. For instance, duplicate transcription factors are specifically retained in plant and animal genomes and both positive selection and transcriptional divergence appear to have played a role in their diversification. However, the relative impact of these two factors has not been systematically evaluated. Class B MADS-box genes, comprising DEF-like and GLO-like genes, encode developmental transcription factors essential for establishment of perianth and male organ identity in the flowers of angiosperms. Here, we contrast the role of positive selection and the known divergence in expression patterns of genes encoding class B-like MADS-box transcription factors from monocots, with emphasis on the family Orchidaceae and the order Poales. Although in the monocots these two groups are highly diverse and have a strongly canalized floral morphology, there is no information on the role of positive selection in the evolution of their distinctive flower morphologies. Published research shows that in Poales, class B-like genes are expressed in stamens and in lodicules, the perianth organs whose identity might also be specified by class B-like genes, like the identity of the inner tepals of their lily-like relatives. In orchids, however, the number and pattern of expression of class B-like genes have greatly diverged.


The DEF-like genes from Orchidaceae form four well-supported, ancient clades of orthologues. In contrast, orchid GLO-like genes form a single clade of ancient orthologues and recent paralogues. DEF-like genes from orchid clade 2 (OMADS3-like genes) are under less stringent purifying selection than the other orchid DEF-like and GLO-like genes. In comparison with orchids, purifying selection was less stringent in DEF-like and GLO-like genes from Poales. Most importantly, positive selection took place before the major organ reduction and losses in the floral axis that eventually yielded the zygomorphic grass floret.


In DEF-like genes of Poales, positive selection on the region mediating interactions with other proteins or DNA could have triggered the evolution of the regulatory mechanisms behind the development of grass-specific reproductive structures. Orchidaceae show a different trend, where gene duplication and transcriptional divergence appear to have played a major role in the canalization and modularization of perianth development.