Botany One interviews Dr Hervé Sauquet for Fascination for Plants Day and learn more about his mission to understand the evolution of flowers.

With Fascination of Plants Day approaching, Botany One has prepared a series of interviews with researchers from around the world working in different areas of botany to share the stories and inspiration behind their careers.

Today, we have Dr Hervé Sauquet, Head of Plant Discovery and Evolution Research at the Botanic Gardens of Sydney (Australia). Dr Sauquet is a queer scientist interested in the evolution of flowers, the structure that gives its name to the most abundant and diverse plant group nowadays: the flowering plants, also known as angiosperms. For instance, he is one of the coordinators of an international project called eFLOWER, which aims to answer long-standing questions in the evolution of flowers, such as “what were the flowers of the first angiosperms like?” or “how is the evolution of flowers related to pollination?”. To learn more about Sauquet’s work, you can visit his lab’s webpage and follow him on X as @hsauquet_bgsyd.

Sauquet with a flowering tree of Eupomatia laurina. Photo by Hervé Sauquet.

What made you become interested in plants?

I was studying biology at the University in an obscure suburb of Paris, and I attended my first floristics practical in my first year. The room was full of freshly collected plants, and we were told that we would learn to dissect flowers and identify these plants all day using a small book. With no prior interest in plants, I first thought this was ridiculous, but then I became instantly hooked! Over the next couple of years, I spent a lot of time keying out as many species as I could every time I was out. I found it remarkable that one could start becoming acquainted with the scientific names of so many plants in our environment and, at the same time, become startled and fascinated by the diversity of plant species and families out there.

What motivated you to pursue your current area of research?

In my third year at University, I attended a short optional course on evolution, specifically phylogenetics, which was not yet part of the mainstream curriculum as it is now. At that time in the late 1990s, morphological data were still a primary source for reconstructing phylogenies, but DNA sequencing was also quickly rising as an additional source of data. I had no idea that this was an active area of research, and I decided this was what I wanted to do. Now, most of my research focuses on using phylogenetic trees to answer questions on angiosperm macroevolution, particularly large-scale patterns in the evolution of flowers.

The angiosperm tree of life and a reconstruction of the functional sex of ancestral flower. Figure from Sauquet et al. (2017)

What is your favourite part of your work related to plants?

I love that there are so many questions that we still need to answer. A key part of my work and main research interests for the past 13 years has focussed on the origin and early diversification of angiosperms. I find it fascinating that we are still scratching the surface, despite considerable work and discoveries by numerous colleagues and the ongoing genomic revolution. I am driven by these difficult questions from the deep past. I love that they require data and expertise from so many different disciplines, and they have made me collaborate with so many incredible colleagues from all over the world.

Are any specific plants or species that have intrigued or inspired your research? If so, what are they and why?

I am interested in all flowering plants, but Magnoliids are so weird and have attracted my attention ever since I started working on them during my PhD. There is a species here in Australia named Eupomatia laurina, or bolwarra, that makes me smile every time I see it in a rainforest or at one of our botanic gardens. It has unique, inside-out glossy flowers, with tepal-like inner staminodes between the stamens and carpels that form a small chamber trapping its tiny weevil pollinator while the flowers transition from their female to their male phase! The weevils even mate inside and lay their eggs in the staminodes, which provide food for the larva after falling on the ground. It is bizarre and wonderful at the same time.

Eupomatia larurina flowers at the Botanic Gardens of Sydney. Photo by Hervé Sauquet.

Could you share an experience or anecdote from your work that has marked your career and reaffirmed your fascination with plants?

I think when my close colleague Jürg Schönenberger and I were walking down a street in Paris, trying to make sense of the latest results of the eFLOWER project, and suddenly realised that our reconstruction of an ancestrally whorled flower could, in fact, explain much of the diversity of extant flowers we see today. Even though this result remained uncertain and proved to be quite controversial, it was a pivotal moment for us that led to a key paper in my career, which paved the way for many new questions. To this day, I can no longer look at a wildflower without trying to imagine its full evolutionary pathway from that deep-time shared ancestor to the Present.

What advice would you give young scientists considering a career in plant biology?

First, follow your heart and intuition. Choose a topic that most motivates you and find a lab and supervisors that challenge you, but you feel comfortable with. Learn from your rejections and mistakes! Embrace the unknown and unexpected (take some risks). Be yourself, and be an ally; the world needs all kinds of scientists and perspectives. Go and see the world at every opportunity, study and work in different labs, and stay open to new research directions and employment options. Oh, and don’t let anyone decide for you whether a career in science is for you: only you know!

What do people usually get wrong about plants?

That all botanists know how to grow plants. I am the worst and can hardly keep a plant alive!

Carlos A. Ordóñez-Parra

Carlos (he/him) is a Colombian seed ecologist currently doing his PhD at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, Brazil) and working as a Science Editor at Botany One and a Social Media Editor at Seed Science Research. You can follow him on X and BlueSky at @caordonezparra.

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