Biologists find a genetic mutation in van Gogh’s sunflowers — how cool is that?

Biologists from the University of Georgia have figured out the exact genetic mutation that was depicted in Vincent van Gogh’s iconic series of sunflower paintings.

We normally think of sunflowers as having a large disc of tiny florets, surrounding by a brilliant frame of yellow petals. But in van Gogh’s paintings — such as Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers — he’d often include a “double-flowered” variant, with big ruffles of golden petals around a small disc of internal florets.

Researchers from Georgia wanted to find the gene and mutation that led to van Gogh’s favoured flower, and used techniques from Gregor Mendel — the forefather of genetics, and a contemporary of the post-Impressionist painter — to track them down.

Plant biologist John Burke, and colleagues, began by cross-breeding traditional sunflowers with a variety of the bushy, double-flowered one like the paintings. The offspring suggested that a single, dominant gene was responsible for creating the double-flowered mutation.

The team then sequenced the flowers and indentified the guilty mutation in the HaCYC2c gene. They then looked for it in hundreds of sunflower varieties including wild, double-flowered and tubular types. Burke and co found that the mutation was always in the fluffy variety, but never in the the common sunflower…

“All of this evidence tells us that the mutation we’ve identified is the same one that van Gogh captured in the 1800s,” said Burke. “In addition to being of interest from a historical perspective, this finding gives us insight into the molecular basis of an economically important trait.”

No doubt your supplier of flower seeds will be able to tell you if they offer the Van Gogh sunflower seeds. And will only charge you double the usual price.