Researchers have used a computer program to simulate the growth of snapdragon petals in order to understand how petal shape is determined in living plants. And they’re just getting started.

“This is the first step in producing a virtual plant,” says Andrew Bangham, who led a team at the University of East Anglia in Norwich that worked on the project.

The goal, says Bangham, is to accumulate enough data about plant growth and development that researchers can create realistic computer models of a whole plant.

“This virtual plant will enable us to test our ideas about how plants control their development and to explore how they create the myriad of complex shapes we see in leaves, petals, roots and other plant parts,” he says.