Researchers from the Floral Genome Project at Penn State University, with an international team of collaborators, have proposed an answer to Charles Darwin's "abominable mystery:" the inexplicably rapid evolution of flowering plants immediately after their first appearance some 140 million years ago. By developing new statistical methods to analyze incomplete DNA sequences from thirteen strategically selected plant species, the researchers uncovered a previously hidden "paleopolyploidy" event, an ancient whole-genome duplication that preceded the appearance of the ancestral flowering plant. The results will appear in the June issue of Genome Research.
Claude dePamphilis, associate professor of biology at Penn State, is the principal investigator of the Floral Genome Project and the senior author of the paper. "We found a concentration of duplicated genes that suggests a whole-genome duplication event in the earliest flowering plants," he says. "A polyploidy event early in the history of flowering plants could explain their sudden evolution."
One unexpected observation from the study is the relatively slow accumulation of mutations in primitive flowering plants like the yellow water lily (Nuphar). "We can view these basal angiosperms like the Hubble Space Telescope, which helps us get a deeper look into the early history of the universe--these plants allow us to take a deeper look into genomic history."
Darwin noticed that flowering plants appear suddenly in the fossil record and then radiate quite rapidly. Technically known as angiosperms, "flowering plants exhibit a number of evolutionary innovations that appeared rapidly, including novel structures like carpels and primitive petals and sepals, the sine qua non of flowering plants," dePamphilis says. Angiosperms also boast plenty of unique biochemistry. "They're a rich source of medicinal compounds. Even the kind of wood they make is special."
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