Plants are pretty special. Not only can many species tolerate extra chromosome sets, but polyploidy appears to be a recurring theme throughout plant evolution. The question is why.
"Recent data reveal evidence of polyploidy in an array of plants, like grapes, poplar trees, corn, and many others," Wood said. "In most of these cases the evidence points to ancient polyploid events. Some species of flowering plants have more than 400 chromosomes and some fern species more than 1,000 due to repeated instances of polyploidy during their evolution. While these examples might seem remarkable, given the high frequency of polyploidy speciation documented here, the bigger surprise would be if plant lineages were found in which polyploidy was absent."
One implication of the PNAS paper is that Wood, Rieseberg, and their coauthors may be getting close to solving the mystery. If extra genomes provide no special advantage over relatives, the ubiquity of polyploidy in plants could simply be because polyploid mutants are commonly produced. Evolutionary change that doesn't involve the plus-or-minus forces of natural selection is called "neutral" in evolutionary biology parlance.
"I really thought we would find evidence that polyploids have an advantage," Wood said. "The idea that the large number of polyploid species and the attending high chromosome numbers might be simply due to a neutral process is intriguing."
|Contact: David Bricker|