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Professor's work published in top biology journal

Nov. 3, 2008

KALAMAZOO--These giant flowers resemble and smell like rotting flesh. But it's not the decay of the tropical Rafflesia that interests Western Michigan University's Dr. Todd Barkman. His team's four-year study of the evolution of the flowers found in the jungles of Southeast Asia is another piece toward the mapping of their DNA and harnessing the genes controlling growth to be used for other plants.

Barkman, a WMU associate professor of biology, was lead author on a paper that included seven international researchers who studied the flower and had their findings published in the Oct. 14 issue of the biweekly Current Biology, one of the top biology journals in the world. The paper, "Accelerated Rates of Floral Evolution a the Upper Size Limit for Flowers," considers the relatively quick time frame it took the Rafflesia, with a diameter of up to three feet, to evolve into one of the world's largest flowers.

Other authors included Seok-Hong Lim, a 2006 WMU graduate with a master's in biology; Mika Bendiksby and Trond Schumacher of the University of Oslo in Norway; Kamarudin Mat Salleh of the University of Kebangsaan in Malaysia; Jamili Nais of Sabah Parks in Malaysia; and Domingo Madulid of the Phillippine National Museum.

"Rafflesia evolved from small-flowered ancestors very rapidly in just the last few million years. With our finding, it may be possible to find what gene makes these flowers so large and use that knowledge to help modify crops or other horticulture plants," Barkman says.

Yet his research currently focuses on plants that are non-edible, such as flowers, acknowledging the controversy surrounding the development of genetically modified food. He plans a six-month sabbatical spring semester to return to Malaysia and continue his gene work.

For more information, contact Dr. Todd Barkman at todd.barkman@wmich.edu or (269) 387-2776.

Media contact: Deanne Molinari, (269) 387-8400, deanne.molinari@wmich.edu

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