Geneticist François Parcy clarifies the abominable mystery of flowers


François Parcy, in Paris, in April 2019.

He is a researcher who flourishes among corollas, spikes and cabbages. Sporty and smiling, François Parcy makes his mark in the field of floral development at the University of Grenoble-Alpes (CNRS-CEA-Inrae). His armfuls of experience and the collection of his discoveries earned him the silver medal of the CNRS in 2022.

But the geneticist also makes his own honey by sharing his floral booty with others. “Flowers, everyone loves them and admires them. They are privileged objects to talk about science, molecular biology, genetics and evolution., he gets excited, a hint of sunshine in his accent. With great passion, this great walker takes us back over two hundred million years, in the footsteps of an unknown saga: that of flowering plants. This exciting evolutionary adventure inspired him to write a book, The secret history of flowers (Humansciences editions, 2019). Book that has just been adapted into a documentary, The abominable mystery of flowers (co-written by Clément Champiat and François Tribolet, France 5, 2022, available in replay).

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“François is an excellent speaker; beyond that, he is a true storytellertestifies Teva Vernoux, biologist of the CNRS-ENS of Lyon. When he talks about flowers, he fascinates not only the general public but also those who know the subject. “

His lessons, François Parcy, gladly begins them with verses by Baudelaire: “Happy is he (…) Who hovers over life and understands without effort / The language of flowers and mute things! “ (The evil flowers, 1857). But it is to better convince us, then, that this poetic language is only a lure, an artifice of seduction. It allows the flowers, the flirtatious ones, to dedicate their lures – shapes, scents and colors – not to our eyes and our nostrils, but to those of the pollinators, their precious allies, which they attract in their nets. And the researcher to list “The sum of innovations” which allowed these “Champions of adaptation” to supplant their rivals: in addition to their massive seduction weapons aimed at hunting species, they can bet “Smaller genome and cells, more efficient photosynthesis …” In return, these slender creatures have conquered the globe, forming over 90% of today’s plant species.

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Put your intuition to work

If the determinism of plants leaves little room for free will, human trajectories seem – a little – more open. “My parents dropped out of school very early, so I fall into the category of” class deserters “confides François Parcy. The beauty of the French education system is that it doesn’t always reproduce the family model. “ No determinism in the path he followed, really? It should be noted that her mother was a florist – this cannot be invented …

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