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Flowering plants finally have a comprehensive "DNA tree of life"

An international team of 279 scientists has crafted the most comprehensive DNA tree of life for flowering plants, a pivotal step towards understanding their complex evolutionary history and their current ecological dominance.

In an era where the secrets of flowering plants and other natural wonders are increasingly unlocked through technological advances, this stands out as a monumental achievement in the field of plant science.

Blueprint for the flowering plants DNA tree of life

The researchers utilized an astounding 1.8 billion letters of genetic code from more than 9,500 species. This accounts for approximately 60% of all known flowering plant genera.

Such a vast dataset not only illuminates the evolutionary pathways of these plants but also enhances our understanding of their diversification and adaptation processes.

The research collaboration, led by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, included significant contributions from biologists at the University of Michigan among others.

Together, the experts decoded DNA sequences from over 800 species that had never been sequenced before, contributing to a better understanding of plant evolution and opening doors to potentially discovering new species and medicinal compounds.

Analyzing an unprecedented amount of data

One of the project’s many challenges was the sheer volume of data, which would take a single computer 18 years to process.

Alexandre Zuntini, a research fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, described the task of analyzing this unprecedented amount of data as both a massive challenge and a unique opportunity. It allowed the team to extend their knowledge of the plant tree of life significantly.

Tom Carruthers, a postdoctoral researcher who co-led the study, emphasized the construction of this extensive tree of life as a revelation of the evolutionary history of flowering plants.

According to Carruthers, this knowledge helps us comprehend how flowering plants have come to be a dominant life form across the globe.

Revolutionizing plant genomics

The study’s revolutionary method involved new genomic techniques that were capable of capturing hundreds of genes and hundreds of thousands of letters of genetic code from each sample. This is a significant scale-up from previous methods.

The technology enabled the team to work with a diverse range of plant material, including specimens that were centuries old and collected from nearly 400 million botanical specimens stored worldwide.

Stephen Smith, a professor from the University of Michigan’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, noted the complexity encountered in gene regions during the study. New procedures were developed to examine evolutionary patterns on an unprecedented scale.

History and importance of flowering plants

Flowering plants, or angiosperms, have a rich history that dates back over 140 million years. They emerged during the Cretaceous period and quickly became the dominant plant group on Earth.

Today, angiosperms comprise an estimated 90% of all plant species, making them a crucial component of our planet’s biodiversity.

Evolutionary advantages and ecological significance

Angiosperms possess several evolutionary advantages that have contributed to their success. They developed specialized reproductive structures, such as flowers and fruits, which aid in pollination and seed dispersal.

These adaptations allowed flowering plants to form mutually beneficial relationships with animals, facilitating their spread across various ecosystems.

Flowering plants play a vital role in maintaining the balance of ecosystems worldwide. They serve as the foundation of many food chains, providing sustenance for countless species of animals, from insects to mammals.

Angiosperms also shape the physical environment, influencing factors such as soil composition, water cycles, and atmospheric oxygen levels.

Economic impact from scientific discoveries

Throughout history, humans have relied on flowering plants for various purposes. They have been cultivated for food, medicine, textiles, and construction materials.

Agriculturally important angiosperms, such as rice, wheat, and corn, have supported the growth of civilizations and continue to feed billions of people today.

Additionally, many flowering plants have economic value as ornamental crops, contributing to the global horticulture industry.

The study of flowering plants has led to numerous scientific breakthroughs. Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants laid the foundation for modern genetics.

The discovery of plant hormones and their role in growth and development has revolutionized agriculture and horticulture. Furthermore, research on plant-based medicines has yielded valuable treatments for various diseases.

Benefits of the flowering plants DNA tree of life

The benefits of such a detailed tree of life are manifold. Not only does it help scientists predict how diseases and pests might affect plants in the future, but it also opens up possibilities for using AI to discover plants with medicinal properties.

The study’s findings, which are now freely accessible through the Kew Tree of Life Explorer, are expected to significantly enhance biodiversity research and conservation efforts.

By utilizing historic herbarium specimens, some collected in the early 19th century, the team tapped into a rich repository of genetic data that shed light on the evolutionary dynamics of flowering plants through geological time.

Working with botanists of the past

“In many ways this novel approach has allowed us to collaborate with the botanists of the past by tapping into the wealth of data locked up in historic herbarium specimens, some of which were collected as far back as the early 19th century,” explained William Baker, a senior research leader for Kew’s Tree of Life Initiative.

“Our illustrious predecessors such as Charles Darwin or Joseph Hooker could not have anticipated how important these specimens would be in genomic research today. DNA was not even discovered in their lifetimes!,” Baker enthused. “Our work shows just how important these incredible botanical museums are to ground-breaking studies of life on Earth. Who knows what other undiscovered science opportunities lie within them?”

DNA tree of life for flowering plants and Earth’s future

This extensive collaboration not only marks a significant advance in plant science but also continues a long history of cooperative research that spans the globe.

The findings reveal how flowering plants evolved across geological eras, uncovering patterns that would have intrigued even Charles Darwin.

As we stand on the brink of these new botanical insights, the flowering plant DNA tree of life deepens our understanding of the natural world and equips us with the knowledge to protect and preserve it amidst the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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