Professor identifies family of foul-smelling scientific mystery
Katie Marshall Issue date: 2/25/04
Senior News Writer
Classification for the foul-smelling Rafflesia was recently established by WMU's very own Todd Barkman, an assistant professor of biological sciences. The above photo was taken right in Southeast Asia.
Courtesy of Todd Barkman
What is reddish-brown in color, 1 foot high by 3 feet in diameter, weighs 15 pounds and smells like rotten flesh?
Todd Barkman, assistant professor of biological sciences at Western Michigan University, has been researching the olfactory-offending flower called a Rafflesia, and answered a question that has been boggling scientific minds for 180 years: What species is this flower related to?
The Rafflesia is found in Southeast Asia in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Barkman discovered that the unique flower is related to the order of flowers called Malpighiales, a group that includes violets, willow trees and passionflowers. Passionflowers are tropical vines that have many structural similarities to the Rafflesia.
"We know almost what family every organism is related to on Earth," Barkman said. "This plant somehow escaped classification."
Barkman has been researching the Rafflesia for a couple of years, but found out which family the plant originates from only in the last six months by using DNA and genetic techniques.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Barkman said. "Normally scientific research is not that rapid."
Barkman described the petals of the flower as bumpy or warty, and the flower is hairy inside.
"Some people find this flower revolting," Barkman said.
The Rafflesia is not the only flower that gives off an offending odor. Barkman said a number of flowers don't smell good because the flowers are intended to attract carrion flies for pollination.
"The smell lures flies to the flower so they will lay their eggs," Barkman said. "The flies think the flower is dead."
The Rafflesia has about 20 different species and is notable for producing the largest flowers in the world. This plant is also classified as a parasite because it grows inside of another plant. The host plant is comparable to a grapevine.
Barkman worked in Southeast Asia for 10 years and encountered the Rafflesia during his research in Borneo. He has been a WMU faculty member since 2000.http://media.www.westernherald.com/media/storage/paper881/news/2004/02/25/News/Professor.Identifies.Family.Of.FoulSmelling.Scientific.Mystery-2125041.shtml