Collaboration in UConn research on monkeyflower evolution 


On Feb. 9, 2023, a team of researchers, including University of Connecticut botanist and Associate Professor Yaowu Yuan and his colleague in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Mei Liang, published findings detailing a significant breakthrough in scientific understanding of the monkeyflower genome. The versatile monkeyflower, the study of which Yuan’s lab specializes in, demonstrates a remarkable diversity in color, shape and genetic makeup while also serving as a model for evolutionary processes as a whole.  

As showcased in UConn Today, the group’s findings focused on a gene named “YUP,” which targeted the regulators of pigments, mutated to alter the overall color and appearance of the plant. Mutations in YUP contribute to significant changes in the plant’s color, such as when a restoration of yellow pigments created vivid red monkeyflowers that developed into an entirely new species which attracted entirely new pollinators – not bees, but hummingbirds.  

Their research sheds light not only on an important evolutionary phenomenon, but also the processes which guide innovation, exploration and discovery within all of our quests for knowledge.  

The team’s research succeeded in large part because of a breach of “conventional wisdom”, as Yuan describes it in his own interview with UConn Today. Liang decided to investigate a cluster of genes that Yuan did not trust to be the source of a breakthrough, culminating in the discovery of YUP’s strong regulatory power in targeting pigment production.  

Yuan, however, was excited when his hypothesis was revealed to be incorrect.  

“True breakthroughs always come from the unexpected,” Yuan explained. “I’m happy to be wrong!” 

Such an attitude, he says, is critical for one to succeed in research. Unlike “pre-arranged” course work for a lab class, research is inherently open-ended and the potential for failure, or at least a significant setback, is always present. In course work, one can always see the end in front of them, but one who conducts research is perpetually “in the fog,” as Yuan notes.  

The monkeyflower is native to eastern and central North America and has been introduced to the Pacific Northwest. University of Connecticut botanist Yaowu Yuan and his colleague Mei Liang recently published findings detailing a significant breakthrough in scientific understanding of the monkeyflower genome. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Spontaneous decisions to investigate certain leads, like those made by Liang, is what investigative experimentation is built upon. Though it may appear to bring only a slim chance of success, many original hypotheses do not fare any better. Yuan is no stranger to this feeling, but claims he is happier to have his conceptions challenged and new insight generated as a result.  

Yuan and his lab are not finished with their experiments on pigment suppression. Now they are investigating selective suppression, in which certain pigments affect specific parts of the flower, but not others.  

“I have a favorite path right now,” Yuan said, “Right now, we both agree… but after six months, if we keep trying, it forces you to change.”  

One way of change involves further collaboration, both within the lab and outside. For past research, the Monkeyflower Lab has collaborated with the UConn School of Medicine in Farmington, researchers in Canada from the University of Calgary and analysts at Chinese universities.  

“He had never worked on plants before,” Yuan said of his Farmington colleague.  

Together they were able to use the resources at the UConn School of Medicine’s Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling to produce computer simulations and interpretations of monkeyflower growth.  

Sometimes, as in the case of the University of Calgary research team, research collaboration comes from something as simple as seeing another team’s work and recognizing how it relates to yours.  

“They published a paper similar to what I was doing … and I thought that was so cool!” Yuan said about the experience. “We were interested in the same problem, but approached it differently.” 

Success in research requires not just intelligence, but communication, cooperation, dedication and the ability to appreciate every small measure of progress one’s team reaches.  

“Every little thing we find out keeps me excited,” Yuan said about those moments of progress. “Now I know just a little bit more, and that keeps me going.” 

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